Friday, February 3, 2017

Looking Back At Raven Software - 20 Years Later

It occurred to me recently that it was 20 years ago I started working at Raven Software. 20 years ago today, actually: February 3rd, 1997. Working there and the events that unfolded during my time there completely changed my life. Interested in a little trip down memory lane? As the Gilligan's Island theme song goes, "Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale..."

I was working as a restaurant manager at my Alma Mater - The University of Wisconsin - Whitewater in 1996. I hired a guy by the name of Jeff to work part time in the kitchen while he was finishing up his Master's Degree. Through him I met his brother Eric who was a level designer at Raven Software (and he still works there). We hit it off and he told me they were hiring designers and that they were willing to train creative types to do the work. Level design sounded way more interesting to me than restaurant management, so of course I jumped at the chance.

I asked how I should dress for the interview. Should I wear a tie? Business casual? I was told that I would be laughed at and tossed out of the office if I showed up dressed like that. I think I wound up wearing a Green Lantern t-shirt and a backwards baseball cap. The interview was me sitting with a group of other designers answering questions about my favorite movies and TV shows, comics, RPGs, board games and whatnot. It was very casual. They were cool guys. Afterward I went to my eventual boss's office and watched him work for a while and he asked "Do you think you can do this?" I said "Sure. When can I start?" He said I could start in two weeks. Yeah!

"Night of the Living Designers"
Even though it was a salaried position, it was truly entry level. I actually took a pay cut from the big *cough* bank ($22,000 per year) I was making at the restaurant job to take the gig. Raven was still independent then. It was pre-Activision acquisition (though Activision was in the process of publishing Hexen II) so things were running very lean. You had to make games quickly and pretty much every game had to be a hit or you were out of business. It was hard work. Long hours. But I loved every minute of it.

Taking this job was a huge risk for me. Not only was I taking a pay cut, I was relying on myself to learn and do a job I'd never done before that had nothing to do with restaurants or my English Degree. If I failed, I would be out on the street. It was a big leap of faith.

I grew up in a town of less than 1500 people before moving to a farm in the boonies. When I went to school in Whitewater, that was a city of maybe 10,000 people. I was living in Fort Atkinson and that, too, was a tiny town. The idea of working in "the big city" of Madison scared the shit out of me. I had to drive an hour each way every day and driving on the beltline in the mornings was terrifying. But I did it. I even moved to Madison a year later. I laugh about it now, but this was a a huge step for me. The first of many huge steps. Luckily I had the newly reformatted 94.1 WJJO morning show to keep me sane on the morning commute. Happy 20th anniversary to you, too, Johnny and Greg!



My first title was Take No Prisoners. Raven was working on that, the aforementioned Hexen II and a third title called MageSlayer. Three PC games. Three different publishers. Less than 30 employees. It really was a different era. My first workstation was a Pentium Pro 200 with 128MB of RAM running Windows NT 4.0. My only previous Windows experience was with 3.1. I had to learn 3-D Studio Max. I'd never seen or touched 3-D design software in my life. It was a steep learning curve, but I did okay. I definitely put in my share of extra hours. I was 23 years old and single and I was used to working 60 or more hours a week at the restaurant, so living at the office was natural for me.

Take No Prisoners was originally called Riot. The only problem? Halfway through development, Monolith announced that they were working on a game called Riot. (Interestingly enough, Monolith's Riot would later become SHOGO: Mobile Armor Division so what follows was pretty much for naught).

SHIT!

We had to come up with a new name. We all brainstormed and we sent the publisher tons of name suggestions. They wanted to call it Outrage. The project lead thought that sounded like a 3 year old having a tantrum at a K-Mart, though, so it didn't really fly. There was a lot of back and forth and Take No Prisoners eventually emerged and somehow the name stuck. We didn't come up with it. We weren't really huge fans of the name, but we felt it was better than Outrage. I liked it, though, because I was (and still am) a big fan of the Megadeth song of the same name.



Toward the end of Take No Prisoners' development in 1997, 3dfx released their new Voodoo 3-D Accelerator card. The Voodoo Rush, maybe? I remember walking across the field behind Raven to go to Best Buy with another designer (Hi Jon!) to buy a couple of them and bring them back to test. They were pretty badass at the time. At least until nVidia came along a short while later and blew everyone away with their TNT, TNT2 and GeForce cards.

Anyway, the programming team that was working on the Vampire Engine (which powered Take No Prisoners and MageSlayer) wanted to take advantage of the colored lighting that could be done using these new 3-D cards. They put in support for the technology, but the team was on a tight deadline to finish up the maps so we didn't think we would have time to touch them all to add it. At this point I went off the reservation and decided I would try to do it all myself. I lived at the office for two days and slept under my desk so I could try to get it all done. By the time anyone realized what I was doing, I was more than half way there so we decided to finish the job...because we really had no choice.


Looking back, I'm honestly surprised this little stunt didn't get me fired. I imagine I have my original boss, MRJ, to thank for shielding me from that shit storm. We got it in. We got it done. It was pretty rad. That game really did come together at the last minute. The engine technology was in development the whole time we were working, so it was only at the end that things really started working the way they were intended. We got multiplayer in in the last few months and we even supported a half dozen (or more) custom game types. I put my blood, sweat and tears into Take No Prisoners (as did everyone on the team) and the day it released I couldn't have been prouder.



It bombed. I was heartbroken.

No one really knew how to market the game. Raven was known for first person shooters, so the whole top down perspective was making people scratch their heads. The view was adjusted to make it more 3rd person than top down, but that didn't help, either. To make matters worse, Activision was in the process of acquiring Raven, so I get the impression that the publishers of both Take No Prisoners and MageSlayer had little interest in these games making a ton of money that would only end up lining Activision's pockets. I believe they tried to cut their losses at that point and just put the games out there to see what they would do. Unfortunately, they didn't do much.

Hexen II was a moderate success, though. Activision was happy. The acquisition went through and we started work on the Hexen II Expansion Pack - Portal of Praevus. That was a lot of fun. It was my 2nd project. I had to learn the Quake tools and our modified QuakeEd editor. I did it. I learned a lot. My career as a game developer was off and running.

In the years that followed, my time at Raven coincided with some of the biggest events in my life. These events included, but were not limited to:

  • The death of my father and meeting my future wife in 1998.
  • Moving to "the big city" of Madison.
  • The Internet boom and the rise of eBay, Amazon and countless other online empires
  • Buying my first "new" vehicle in 1999.
  • Writing my first book (the Brady Games strategy guide for Soldier of Fortune)
  • Getting married and building my first house in 2000.
  • My first puppy dog (who was with me for 16 years)
  • The 9/11 attacks in 2001.
  • My first ever travel outside Wisconsin (nationally and internationally)
  • Attending various E3's, gaming conferences, conventions and press events
  • Writing my first Screenplay (Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix)
  • Working on some of the biggest franchises in entertainment: Star Wars, Star Trek and X-Men
  • My divorce and selling my first house.
  • Seeing my mother battle and eventually succumb to brain cancer... :(

Outside of game development, my time at Raven taught me how to manage, support and promote projects -- skills that served me well years later when I was a Producer at Pi Studios. I also learned desktop support, customer support, and a variety of Information Technology skills which would eventually allow me to transition out of game development and back into IT when Pi Studios closed in 2011.


I worked with some really talented people and made a lot of lifelong friends...many of whom still work at Raven today! I loved working with all of those friends (and going to their weddings). I loved the work itself. Most of all, I loved promoting our projects in the gaming press. It gave me great satisfaction to help get so many eyes on all the fantastic work everyone was doing. It was never about me. I never wanted to be (or tried to become) a rock star. I just wanted our work to be seen and wanted our games to succeed. I took pride in that back then, and I still do to this day.

Thank you Brian and Steve and MRJ and Mike and Eric and all of the rest of the 100+ Ravenites I had the pleasure of meeting and working with over the years. It was a great opportunity and it shaped the person I am today in so many ways. I hope you remember me as fondly as I remember all of you.  :)

On a final note, I was sad to hear that Charlie Bernstein, the fine gentleman who replaced me as Raven's IT Administrator when I left, was recently in a major car accident. I'm very proud of the way the Raven family (and everyone else) from around the world is banding together to help support Charlie during this terrible tragedy. "Charlie's Army" has raised $65,000 so far, but there's a lot more work to do. If you can, I encourage you to make a donation to support one heck of a great guy.


Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

John Lynch - NFL Hall of Fame Finalist? HA HA HA HA HA!

John Lynch? Come on, man. Or should I say MEDIA DARLING John Lynch? The NFL is actually considering enshrining Lynch in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year. Yep, he's a finalist. I admit Safety is a vastly overlooked position when it comes to the Hall of Fame, but Lynch?  LYNCH?

I guess he was pretty good.  But let's compare Pro Football Hall of Fame candidate John Lynch to another "pretty good" Safety who will never even come close to being nominated to the Hall of Fame...the Packers' LeRoy Butler.

John Lynch (Tampa Bay Buccanneers, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots)

John Lynch Hoisting The Hardware
HIGHLIGHTS:
9x Pro Bowl
3x All Pro (1st Team)
1x All Pro (2nd Team)
1x Superbowl Champion (1 Appearance)

STATS:
13 sacks
16 FF (8 recovered)
26 INT
89 Passes Defended
0 TDs
1051 tackles (4.7 per game)
224 games


LeRoy Butler Inventing The Leap
LeRoy Butler (Green Bay Packers)

HIGHLIGHTS:
4x Pro Bowl
4x All Pro (1st Team)
90's All Decade Team
1x Superbowl Champion (2 Appearances)

STATS:
20.5 sacks
11 FF (8 recovered)
38 INT
95 Passes Defended
1 INT Return TD (Culminating in the invention of the Lambeau Leap)
726 tackles (4 per game)
181 games

So in 43 less games, Butler has 7.5 more sacks, 12 more INTs, 6 more passes defensed and a TD, while Lynch forced 5 more fumbles.  Who's the Hall of Fame nominee here?

This somehow resulted in 5 more trips to the Pro Bowl for Lynch? Based on fan voting, no doubt. Lynch always had a pretty amazing media presence, whereas LeRoy kept to himself. That will ultimately be Butler's undoing when it comes to enshrinement. It'll never happen.

Another guy who probably deserves the Hall of Fame more than Lynch?  Steve Atwater! But that's another story.

2x Super Bowl Champion, 8x Pro Bowler, 3x All Pro, 90's All Decade Team, 1180 Tackles, 24 INT



Thursday, December 22, 2016

Waving Goodbye To 2016...

I think I speak for just about everyone when I say "Fuck 2016." It's been a shitty year that won't be missed by many. Let's start with celebrity deaths. There have been more than 100 of them this year. Some really big names, too: David Bowie, Prince, Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, Muhammad Ali. The list goes on and on. This video is a nice farewell to those we lost this year...


People die. Time is the fire in which we burn. Blah, blah, blah. I get it. It doesn't make it suck any less. 2016 was brutal. Sadly, all of the faces from my youth are getting older and grayer. I don't see it getting any easier going forward. :(

On to politics. President Trump? Seriously? What have we done, America? It continues to boggle my mind that mass amounts of people will vote against their own interests in the name of protecting guns and religion and winning the so call "war on terror." Yet here we are...again.


All of these impoverished, minority, and women voters propping up a man and a party that can't keep laws off of women's bodies and want to strip any kind of social welfare and socioeconomic safety nets down to nothing so they can give tax breaks to the 1% and add Trillions to the National Debt. His cabinet picks are the equivalent of draining the swamp and filling it back up again with toxic waste.

President Trump terrifies me. I fear for the world I'm leaving for my son. I hope for everyone's sake that I'm wrong, but I guess all we can do is wait and see.

The Cubs won the World Series after falling behind 3 games to 1? Against the Cleveland Indians? What in the actual fuck, 2016? Ugh. Crazy how close BACK TO THE FUTURE II was to predicting it! Just one year off!


I got in a car accident in November. That was no fun. Fortunately, no one was injured. Even more fortunate, my son wasn't in the car at the time. I'm not sure I could ever forgive myself if I caused that little boy harm.


The bright side? I'm back in Wisconsin again, close to family and friends. I have my health (*knock on wood*). I'm writing for PopHorror.com and enjoying that bigly (Thanks President-Elect Trump). I got a new car...a 2017 Honda Accord and I like it a lot (the car, not the payment). I may even be able to get out and see STAR WARS: ROGUE ONE before the calendar flips!


What's on tap for 2017? More writing. More reading. More exercise. Less alcohol. Better nutrition. More family time. Cross some movies from the "greatest films of all time" off of my "to watch" list. Oh, and the new Friday the 13th game!

Last, but not least, more blogging! I'm sure I'll have lots more to say in 2017 than I did in 2016. Until then, Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! Happy Festivus!  Happy New year! Beef jerky time!



Thursday, October 13, 2016

Thorsday Thoughts - TV Time, Horror Writing, The Thing and The Return of the "VS." Movie!

Happy Thorsday!


How goes it, true believers? This just in: I watch too much television. I was behind before, but now that Fall is here, there are new seasons of THE FLASH, SUPERGIRL, AMERICAN HORROR STORY and MARVEL'S AGENTS OF SHIELD to contend with. Oh, and a little series called WESTWORLD. And THE WALKING DEAD is due back any day now! How am I ever going to get around to GAME OF THRONES at this rate?  First world problems, for sure.


My horror writing continues.  My latest Pop Horror articles include:

* Kathy Bates Receives Hollywood Walk of Fame Star
* It's Stephen King's Birthday! Celebrate With A Netflix Binge!
* New Friday The 13th Delayed (Again) At Paramount
* Sheri Moon Zombie Turns 46!
* SyFy's 31 Days of Halloween Schedule Announced
* Adrienne Barbeau To Receive Lifetime Achievement Award
* Wes Craven's Deadly Friend Turns 30!
* Donald Trump PhotoShopped Into Classic Horror Movies!

Fun stuff!  You should bookmark PopHorror.com and visit frequently. They have some great writers over there and new horror news and features every day!

I ordered a copy of the Shout Factory Collector's Edition of my favorite movie of all time: John Carpenter's THE THING!


I'm so excited! It will be in hand in time for Halloween. I think it deserves a special screening on my new(ish) 4K HDTV! The special features are amazing and I hear the audio has never sounded better. A new Blu-ray Special Edition of WAXWORK and WAXWORK II is also coming out this month. It's a bit pricey, but I think it will make a great birthday present...for myself!  :)

I saw this meme floating around and it really got me thinking...


Let's bring back the vs. movies!  FREDDY VS. JASON was fun!  BRIAN MILLS VS. MICHAEL MYERS sounds amazing!  How about after JOHN WICK 2 we get JOHN WICK VS. JASON VOORHEES?  Seriously, I'd pay big money for that!  JASON BOURNE VS. FREDDY KRUEGER?  JACK REACHER VS. LEATHERFACE?  These movies write themselves!

That's all for now.  Happy Halloween (if I don't post before then)!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The 10 Greatest Cereals Of All Time! For The Glory of Quisp!

I was listening to the radio on the way to work today and Johnny Danger from 94.1 WJJO was talking about a survey that voted for the greatest cereals of all time.  He starts out with LIFE at #97 and works his way up through APPLE JACKS at #40 and FROOT LOOPS at #38.  Then he starts talking about the Monster Cereals at #30, #27 and #17.  He rattles off a chunk of the Top 10 and then says "Guess what Number 1 is?"

*DRUMROLL*



I pump my fist and yell "YEAHHHHHHHH!!!!" at my radio when he says "QUISP!"  The greatest cereal of all time...OF ALL TIME!  Man, I loved that stuff.  My dad and my stepmother used to buy it for my brother and when we visited them on the weekends as kids and I'm pretty sure we killed an entire box, at least, every week.  It was so amazingly badass.  It's like CAP'N CRUNCH without the total roof of your mouth destruction that comes with it.

So, it's a good list.  A "Tremendous" list, if you listen to Donald Trump. They got #1 right at least.  It got me thinking about my favorite cereals.  After much deliberation (and countless thousands of boxes of cereal consumed in my youth), here they are...the Top 10 Cereals of All Time!

My profound apologies to TRIX , APPLE JACKS, LUCKY CHARMSGRAPE NUTS and HONEY BUNCHES OF OATS, which all narrowly missed my list.

#10 - FRANKENBERRY - No disrespect to COUNT CHOCULA or BOO BERRY (or even YUMMY MUMMY), but this is my favorite Monster Cereal. I love drinking the strawberry milk from the bowl at the end!

#9 - SUPER SUGAR CRISP/SUPER GOLDEN CRISP - I guess at some point it became politically incorrect to call out a cereal for what it is: pure sugar.  That's when the name changed to SUPER GOLDEN CRISP.  A shout out here to SUGAR SMACKS, which are essentially the same thing.  I "Dig 'Em!"


#8 - C3POs - C3PO is not my favorite STAR WARS character.  Not by a mile.  In fact, he kinda sucks.  Regardless, I have fond memories of eating these in the 1980's at my friend John's house.  We loved them.  Many boxes destroyed on the weekends.  I wish they still made this stuff...



#7 - COOKIE CRISP - Yum.  I could eat a box of these in one sitting, I swear. They've had a ton of mascots over the years.  Check this out:



#6 - CINNAMON TOAST CRUNCH - Sugar overload!  Delicious.  Ditto eating a whole box in one sitting.  This stuff is ridiculous.  God damn it!  I have the commercial jingle in my head now!



#5 - HONEY NUT CHEERIOS - Classic.  My son loves it.  My wife loves it.  Good luck keeping a box in the house for very long.  I could do without the mascot, though.  I hate bees.



#4 - GOLDEN GRAHAMS - Yummmmmmm!  I love me some GOLDEN GRAHAMS.  There's a fine timing involved in eating these where the milk has started to soak in, but the grahams haven't gotten soggy yet.  It's an art, really.



#3 - CRACKLIN' OAT BRAN - How the hell did this cereal not even chart on that Top 100 list?  Sure, it looks and sounds like Old People Cereal(TM), but it's not.  It's fantastic!  I'm craving some now.  I might have to go buy some over lunch.




#2 - CAP'N CRUNCH PEANUT BUTTER - The classic.  The standby.  Probably the cereal I had most often growing up.  We always had a box in the house, it seemed.  I think my mom must have stopped and bought a box every night after work before coming home.  She was the greatest.  LOVE YOU, MOM!



P.S. The balloon racer on this box was amazeballs!

#1 - QUISP - I own a QUISP wrist watch.  I'm not even joking.  This stuff is the bomb.  I'm happy to say that even though the cereal was discontinued in the late 70's or early 80's, they still sell this stuff online at Amazon.com!


I think it may be time to introduce my son to the glory...





Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Beware...I LIVE!

Run!  Run!  Run!

Yes, kiddies, much like my old pal SINISTAR, I LIVE!  Gosh, it's been forever since I updated this Blog.  Where do I start?

My "Only Watch Movies I Haven't Seen" Challenge from 2015 was mostly a success.  I think I made it to September before I realized I was punishing myself more than I was doing something worthwhile.  On the bright side, I did watch a ton of new things and it was an interesting learning experience.

I got a new job.  I moved back to Wisconsin from Texas.  I survived my first Winter back in The Frozen Tundra.  The 2nd Winter is imminent.  That's how long it's been...

I haven't been writing much, but that's about to change.  I took a side gig writing for PopHorror.com!


It's only been a few weeks, but it has given me a chance to flex the old (atrophied) writing muscles again!  The articles I've published for them so far include:




Yes, so far I'm getting a reputation as "The Birthday Guy," but don't worry.  I have a bunch of cool ideas for articles and features that I'll be writing over the next few months.  Check back soon!

I Hunger...

Monday, February 16, 2015

UPDATE: The "Only Watch Movies You've Never Seen In 2015" Challenge

I'm two months in to this new year and so far I've kept my pledge to only watch films I've never seen before in 2015.  It's been difficult, in some ways, but I think the fact that being the father of a toddler has me watching less movies in general, so it's not the arduous torture I originally thought it was going to be.

This past weekend was pretty tough, though.  I have a longstanding tradition of watching FRIDAY THE 13th films on Friday the 13th and this year I wasn't able to.  I had to settle for watching a FRIDAY fan film on YouTube.



I honestly can't see I would recommend it, but at least the tradition was somewhat kept alive...and fairly.

Valentine's Day was tough, too, because I generally watch MY BLOODY VALENTINE or the MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D remake on February 14th.  Nope.  No dice.  I did, however, manage to watch a couple of old animated Disney movies that I'd surprisingly never seen because they were running on Disney channel over the weekend.

There's a website I found called Letterboxd that allows you to review and rate and track the movies you watch and I've been keeping a log there.

You can check out my Letterboxd profile at:
http://letterboxd.com/hoekstradamus/

It's a pretty nifty website.  I recommend it.