The Rise and Fall of Games Online, Part 5: June 1996
Note: I reviewed this article in January 1997. Some inflammatory material has been removed, and will stay removed until I no longer live and work in Singapore. Revisions are in parenthesis, and marked “Rev.”
Secrets of the International Traveler
I am a seasoned, international jet-setter.
Why is this? Is this because I am fluent in many languages? Is it because I am warmly greeted at the highest levels of society wherever I go? Is it because I have a reputation that spans seven continents and the romantic capital cities that gleam like gems along the international air corridors? Is it because my counsel on international matters is sought at the highest level of government? Is it because I rode a balsa wood raft from Tierra Del Fuego to the Aleutians, drinking my own urine and eating only raw seagull flesh? Regrettably, no. I have no reputation. No one seeks my counsel. I am firmly entrenched in the middle class, one-fork using societal cadre, and the last thing I killed was a cockroach. And I certainly didn’t eat it. Or drink its urine. No, I am a seasoned international jet-setter because I have figured out how to survive long, transpacific plane flights.
That’s right. I have now crossed the Pacific ocean seven times. Three and a half round trips (I sincerely hope to make it an even number someday). I realize that seven times is jack compared to businessmen who have been doing it for years. But it is enough to learn essential travelling facts. I will now share those facts with you, that you may not have to learn them the hard way.
Comfort is Your Goal
First, and all encompassing. It is, alas, unattainable, but try to come as close as possible. Don’t worry about looking good. Don’t worry about being stylish. Just be comfortable. To this end, I now always carry sweatpants and a jersey in my carry-on bag. The moment we are airborne and the seatbelt sign goes off, I hit the bathroom and change into my baggy sweats and a loose jersey. I wear a dark jersey so the food that invariably drops from my fork as I eat during turbulence doesn’t stain. In my gray baggies and Michigan jersey, padding around in my socks, I may not look suave, but I am damn sure more comfortable than the guy spending twenty hours in his tight Versace jeans.
And what’s so good about looking stylish on an airplane anyway? I’ve been flying all my life, to Europe, across the US, and now to Asia. I have never sat next to an attractive woman, Steven Spielberg, nor anyone else I absolutely had to impress. The one time I sat next to a woman my age, she was Taiwanese and had an impenetrable accent. I burned more calories trying to maintain a conversation with her than I did in an entire summer biking the hills of San Francisco. She was kind, however, and gave me some ginger candies. They were nasty, and sat on my kitchen shelf for three years. They didn’t molder. Never accept candy from the Taiwanese.
The problem with my dress-tactic is that, in twenty hours, your feet gain at least one full size, and it’s a bitch getting your shoes back on. And I always insist on being fully dressed in my jeans and shoes for takeoff and landing. This is because I live under the delusion that, if the plane crashes on takeoff or landing, I will be more able to trample other passengers, escape the fuselage and run beyond the blast radius of the explosion if I am wearing my Nikes.
Just do it.
Don’t Stay Up All Night
Many idiots tell me, seriously, that the answer to my flying problems could be solved if I don’t sleep the night before I get on the plane. Just what I need; to be uncomfortable andexhausted and irritable. These people falsely assume that it is possible to sleep in coach class under any circumstances. Listen, I could stay up for three days of jungle trekking with no food, contract dengue fever, and spend the last twelve hours before the flight watching reruns of the Capital Gang while eating Nytols out of a bowl like dutch mints, and I would still only catch sporadic sleep on the airplane. Do yourself a favor and get a good night’s sleep before you get on.
Don’t Drink Alcohol on the Airplane
This is a tricky one. They sucker you on international flights by making the booze free. It’s hard to resist those free beers and little bottles of Martel and Dewars when a stewardess who looks like a prim version of your Bangkok sex fantasy girl is practically shoving them up your nose. The key is to remind yourself that the job of all airline personnel is to make you miserable, directly or indirectly. Suspect anything they offer. The idea of getting drunk on the airplane for free seems groovy at first, but it comes at a cost. First, and medically, alcohol dehydrates you. This is bad on an airplane where the humidity is already zero point zero. Mark my words, pal. One beer and it’s headache city. Furthermore, as your body dehydrates, mucus production will fail and your boogers will crystallize into little razor-edged boulders forcing you to retreat to the bathroom for strategic nostril maintenance or risk a lethal wound if someone tweaks your nose. (And I’ll cover the other bathroom problems in a moment.) The nose glaciers got so bad on one Singapore Air flight that I actually had to regularly rub the complementary moisturizing cream on the inside of my nostrils. I’ve been able to smell nothing but D&C lilac fragrance #4 ever since.
There are two other reasons to avoid getting drunk on the airplane. One of them is specific to men. It’s hard enough to aim in turbulence already. Don’t make life miserable for the rest of the passengers. The second reason affects everyone. You don’t want to go through customs drunk. You won’t like it. They won’t like it.
Eat the Food And Quit yer Bitchin
I know, I know. Coach class airline food is the worst indignity to be inflicted on man by his fellow since the Bataan Death March. Well, eat it anyway. Believe me, you’d rather be grossed out for thirty minutes than hungry for ten hours with no fridge nearby. Grit your teeth and deal with it. Anyway, despite what you say, I know you secretly enjoy it. Everyone does (except for the deserts). It’s just an easy target for complaining, which, as we all know, is the best kind of free entertainment. And pretty much the only form of free entertainment now that sex is expensive and violence illegal.
Bring a Toothbrush
The caveat to the previous rule is to make sure you bring a toothbrush. And use it, too. After every meal. A lot of grunge can cake up on those teeth in twenty hours. Your neighbors will appreciate your diligence, and it will make the meals more tolerable if the taste doesn’t linger for hours. Plus you’ll never date an exotic Thai stewardess with that bit of sausage skin dangling from your upper gums like a gangrenous second uvula.
Sleep if at All Possible
Sleep is hard to come by on an airplane. I have never slept more than three hours on a twenty hour flight. But it’s great work if you can get it. This is not because sleep refreshes you, or helps you deal with jet lag. It is solely because sleep kills subjective time very efficiently without drawing on valuable entertainment resources such as magazines and Michael Crichton novels. Don’t fight it.
Watch the Movies if You Can’t Sleep
Entertainment on an airplane is a precious resource. If you have a book that will last the duration of the flight, good thinking. Plan on your eyes burning out eventually, though. Notice how your little overhead light never points in exactly the right place? Boeing probably calls that a “feature.” So watch the movies. Even if you hate ‘em, you’ll be surprised how quickly your brain slips into catatonic TV grazing mode. That’s more hours killed. I even watched the remake of Sabrina on my last flight, and, most humiliating, I enjoyed it.
This is the crux. The key. If you can’t master the bathroom cycles, you will never fly the long-hauls in comfort. On a packed 747, bathroom demand is like the tide, and you must learn to predict the ebb and flow. Airplanes are like women’s dormitories; everyone’s biological functions tend to synchronize. The secret is to be able to jump the gun just a little bit and beat the crowd, because the reality is that you will have to go at the same time as everyone else. That is where the true advantage of an aisle seat comes in. Oh sure, you thought it was so that you had a little extra leg room, but no, bathroom access is the key. With an aisle seat, you can access the bathroom easily moments before the crush begins. Here are your key times to look out for:
- As soon as the fasten seatbelt sign goes off after takeoff. Everyone releases those sphincters that were clenched for takeoff. Ditto after turbulence.
- As soon as the meal trays are picked up. The person in the aisle seat can get out before the trays are collected. This is a big tactical advantage.
- The moment the movie credits start. Again, you can easily get out of your aisle seat without disturbing your neighbors, who may still be watching.
- The moment the lights go up after the “sleep” period. You want to get to the bathroom the instant those lights switch on. But your slothlike neighbors may still be sawing wood. Grab that aisle.
- Remember to make a pit stop before landing also. This is a popular time as well. I usually head for the can the moment I feel the nose of the aircraft tip downward. Remember, those lines at customs can be long.
Yes, learn how to beat the crowd and you’ll be much happier traveller. Otherwise, you may end up in waiting behind four or five people. And people take a long damn time in airplane bathrooms. I know I do. I think that we are all fascinated by those new vacuum powered Boeing toilets that apparently instantaneously suck all of your waste products into another dimension. And just to be prepared, you should always stop by the bathroom whenever it is convenient. You’re ready for any adventure with an empty bladder, I always say. Remember, the worst can happen. Joe Pantuso was once on a KAL flight from Seoul to California where every bathroom on the 747 was out of service by the end of the flight. In situations like this, your air-sick bag makes a handy chamber pot.
The Quest for the Ultimate Seat
And now it is time to distill these nuggets of wisdom into one final piece of advice. Taking everything else into account, what seat do you want to ask for? Well assuming that you won’t be lucky enough to get an outside bulkhead seat (don’t get an inside one, the glow from the movie screen will drive you crazy, especially if you are trying to sleep), and you’ll never be able to afford business class (I did it once…it ruined me forever), the key position is an inside aisle seat in the back row of the section.
Let’s analyze why. First, it is the all-important aisle. I realize that, being on the inside, you won’t be able to see out the window. Well, give it up. There really isn’t anything to see at any time except for takeoff and landing, and that ten minutes looks mighty short compared to the other twenty hours. The only real advantage to a window is that it is easier to sleep if you can lean against the wall. But there is a cost to be paid in legroom and bathroom access.
What else makes the last-row inside aisle the key seat? Well, movie viewing plays a key role here. If you fly Virgin Atlantic or Singapore Air you may be lucky enough to have personal video screens. If so, great. Chances are that won’t be the case, however. The inside aisle seat is key for movie viewing because people walking down the aisle won’t block your view of the screen. That can get annoying, believe me. Take the last row because you will still be able to see the screen (no airplane seating section is that long), but if you decide to sleep through the movie, the flicker from the screen won’t drive you crazy. The other advantage of the rearmost seat is that there will be no one behind you, kicking the back of your seat. The only thing nicer than that is being in a bulkhead row where no one is in front of you, reclining during the meal and knocking your Coca-Cola into your lap where the sugar will congeal in your pubic hair, reducing you to blubbering misery for the rest of the trip. Furthermore, those bathrooms are often in the bulkhead at the rear of the section. Proximity is an advantage.
And there you have it. My hard-won travel wisdom. Share it judiciously. After all, there are only so-many last-row aisle seats to go round.
Installment 5: And Here My Troubles Began
It has been an interesting three months since the last installment of the Report from Singapore. Never before have we been so close to getting everything ironed out and moving into full production. And at the same time, never have we been so close to folding up our tent and coming home in frustration.
But I get ahead of the story…
Discussions of Importance
We had been conducting our second round of hiring in mid-March, and had been interviewing people in the conference facilities at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. We found a couple of good people, but it was no bonanza. We remain about two programmers, a sysad, and two artists short. (Rev: we never found a sysad.) In the week before we returned to the States for the Computer Games Development Conference we had another round of contract discussions with Chris. He told us that there would be no more capital expenditures until the contract was signed. No more travel, no more hiring, no more equipment. With CGDC one week away, this caused us some anxiety, but it turned out to not be a problem. So we got comments back from our lawyers, who had been in the process of moving, sat down with Chris and Anthony Chua from Sembawang Media finance, and went over the contract again. Then, when we had agreed on that round of changes, we sent it back to Sembawang’s lawyers. That’s the last we’ve heard of it. Right now we are very happy that we have not signed a contract because we are feeling very jerked around over our computer purchase. More on this later. Furthermore, the capital expenditures threat proved to be empty. There has been no problem with hiring or travel, and the financing for the computers was approved shortly thereafter. The problems have arisen from other sources. Suffice to say, at this point, we will sign no contract until we are completely satisfied with everything. As long as our paychecks come through, we’ll keep working, but we still own all of our intellectual property.
The Computer Game Developer’s Conference was held March 23 through March 27 at the Santa Clara Convention center. I went along with Joe, Rob, Mike, and Paul Naylor, our programmer from New Zealand.
We flew into San Francisco on Friday, the 22nd, with a plan to stay about ten days, leaving late Sunday, the 30th. We were all very excited about the trip for a number of reasons. It was our first trip back to the states in four months, and we were all ready for a taste of home. Also, construction was finally under way on the permanent office space at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, and we were all eager to see what the office would look like when we got back. And, of course, we were thrilled to be going to CGDC.
CGDC is a developer’s conference. It is an intimate show, hosting about four thousand people. It costs over eight hundred dollars US to attend for four days. Many topics are covered, including legal and marketing issues, but the real focus of the conference is on game design and development. There are conferences and round-tables on everything from programming to graphics to writing to video and audio production. The exhibitors show development related tools and products. Everyone there is in the industry. There is no public, no non-industry press, no celebrities, and little discussion of front-office issues. It is really a technicians show. It isn’t glitzy. But it is certainly fun, as any four-day convocation of drunk techno-geeks is likely to be.
CGDC was fun for a lot of reasons. First, your mere presence at the show makes you credible. The price excludes wannabes and poseurs, so if you are there, people take you seriously. You can approach and talk comfortably with anyone at the show. Second, the small size of the show makes almost all of the parties open-invite for attendees. There is a very friendly feel about the show. In keeping with the small size and grand price, everything is catered. They provide three pretty-good buffet meals per day, and free beverages all day long. Plus, on Saturday night there are hospitality suites hosted by many of the companies, where you can get snacks, beers, and a great assortment of giveaway goodies. We came back with many tee shirts, toy weapons, underwear (no shit), a 3D accelerator card, etc.
There was also a huge assassin game organized the final evening of the conference. I drew as my victim a man named Peter Woodson from Domark software. I searched high and low all evening but couldn’t find him. Everyone was surreptitiously studying everyone else’s badges. The next day, in my final conference session, on directing actors, a man rushed into the seminar late and sat down next to me. I peeked at his badge, and imagine my surprise when it turned out that Peter Woodson had sat down right next to me! Unfortunately, conference rooms were off limits, and the game expired during that conference. As the seminar ended I turned to Mr. Woodson and said, “Today must be your lucky day.” and I tossed the card with his name on it onto his lap.
I went to several seminars at CGDC. I went to two dull-but-informative legal ones. I went to several sound design conferences that ranged from banal to fascinating. I also went to a conference projecting the economic trends in the industry across the next year, and was relieved to hear the online games are the last growth frontier (rev: those projections may have been a bit rosy!). I also went to a small-but-intense round table on Internet censorship. Joe and the others attended seminars ranging from how to write interactive stories to a presentation on the 3D engine in id’s upcoming Quake, presented by über-programmer Michael Abrash. I met people from Lucasarts, Kesmai, and a dozen other companies. It was a blast.
Interesting things that happened at CGDC: We saw a man standing in the convention center lobby holding a sign that said “3D Artists: 100K.” It’s a seller’s market for skills in this industry, still. If you are a good programmer or 3D artist, your ticket is punched. Paul Naylor found out how much programmers make in the States, and he is now determined to come back with us next year. We discovered that the role-playing industry has jumped wholesale into the computer games industry. Michael Pondsmith of RTG was there, as were all the old Hero Software guys.
We also found a sign posted on the message board with a color printout of our logo. It was advertising for game designers and programmers for Games Online. The e-mail addresses on it were Chris’ and Yu Min’s. This came as a complete surprise to all of us. None of us had posted it, and we had no idea how the sign could have been posted when the only people in possession of the logo artwork were Joe and Chris. The sign made us very worried and paranoid, especially since Chris had told us that we couldn’t hire any more Americans, and there sure weren’t many Singaporeans at CGDC. We found out only later that Chris had actually been there for a day, on his way through to someplace else in the States, and had posted that notice without bothering to tell us what he was doing. Another demonstration of the ongoing communications gap between us and him.
After four days of study-by-day and revelry by night, the CGDC came to an end. We still had several days in the states, so we split up. Mike went back to Berkeley, and Joe, Paul and Rob went touring the wine country. I went back to my father’s place in San Francisco to spend time with my friends and family and with Christie. I got a chance to catch up with many people, which was very good for my mental health. I was feeling quite cut-off from my friends by this point. Christie and I spent some time together, and I rendezvoused with my gangs in Palo Alto and in San Francisco. I finished up the trip with a blowout barbecue in San Francisco where I invited my San Francisco and Palo Alto friends, and the GOL guys. It was a fun trip.
Speaking of blowouts, there was quite a bit of fun on the flight back from CGDC. Normally on Singapore Air, the safety demonstration is presented on a video, so the stewards and stewardesses don’t have to present it. On this trip, however, there was a problem with the tape, so they had to do it the old fashion way. Now, normally, when the cabin crew demonstrates the life vests, they use one that has not been loaded with the CO2cartridges that provide inflation pressure. Our steward grabbed a live one, however, and put it on. The look on his face was really quite priceless when he yanked on the red tab and the vest inflated with a loud bang! He was rewarded with a round of polite applause and went through the rest of the demonstration looking more than a little sheepish.
We were also lucky enough to have one of the aircraft with personal video screens at every seat, even in coach class. It is really quite an improvement over the big projection screen. There were almost thirty channels, including video games and several uncensored movies. I live for the day when all airplanes have this, when we flew United to E3 six weeks later it was really quite a let down.
Days of Transition
We returned to Singapore filled with a mixture of anxiety over our future and excitement over the prospect of the new office being completed. We arrived at the usual 2:30 AM time, and were all in the office by noon the next day. The first thing we did was to go over to the new office and check on the progress of construction. Everything was coming together nicely, and we were very pleased.
We were greeted with some bad news about one of the people we wanted to hire, however. Ever since our first round of interviews we had wanted to hire an Australian writer named Hardie Tucker. Hardie already worked at the Polytechnic as a part time lecturer in the media department, though at the time we had no idea we would end up as tenants of the Poly. He was also an experienced musician and percussionist, and we thought the combination of skills would make him very valuable. Way back in December we marked him as a “hire” and turned his paperwork over to Yu Min. Well, it wasn’t long before we started hearing the rumblings of bureaucracy steaming towards us.
Yu Min soon told us that there might be some political problems hiring Hardie away from the Polytechnic as we were trying to arrange the lease of our office space from them. Remember, we were still at Boat Quay in mid January. He said, however, that he had a solution. The agreement being drawn up with the Polytechnic was billed as a “cooperation agreement,” not a lease. According to the letter of the agreement, we would be responsible for a certain number of lecture hours per week, and the Poly would give us access to their facilities. Hardie had a teaching commitment that was expiring in the Spring. Yu Min’s suggestion was that we could request that the Polytechnic assign Hardie to us once his lecturing commitment expired.
We ran this suggestion by Hardie, who reacted with dismay. He said that he had never heard of such a thing, and that he didn’t expect that the Polytechnic would agree to it. Yu Min persisted that this was the way to go about it, however. So we trusted him.
Well, time went by, and Hardie never heard any peep from the polytechnic to indicate that anyone there had been approached about this plan, let alone was considering it seriously. Hardie was pondering another possible teaching commitment at the Poly, so the clock was ticking.
By March the situation was critical. Hardie was desperate for some kind of certainty. We wanted to hire him, he wanted to work for us, but we were being obfuscated by bureaucracy. Both Hardie, and Mike, to who’s project Hardie was to be assigned, began to despair of the situation turning out well. Eventually, with much prodding, Yu Min got an answer from the Polytechnic. Predictably, the answer was “no.” At this point, our frustration had reached palpable levels and we were not in the mood to be graceful. The lease had been signed. The construction was under way. Despite Yu Min’s dire warnings that we might be treading on political toes, we decided to do what we should have done in the first place. The Polytechnic, it had turned out, had not made any official offer to renew Hardie’s status as a lecturer. So we told him to quit and we had Yu Min prepare an official offer for him. The deal was done in a week, and we hired him on board. It took four months longer than it should have due to one thing, and one thing only: corporate desire to see if we could get him working for us while leaving his payroll on the Poly’s ledger. As has universally been the case, the delays have cost us more than company would have ever saved, especially considering the low salaries in Singapore.
Some of the blame must fall on Ngee Ann Polytechnic as well, however. This school has a bureaucracy that would shame the most Byzantine financial aid office in the UC system. Anything we have to send to the Poly for approval takes several weeks to return to us. The spirit of cooperation between Ngee Ann Poly and Sembawang has been further enhanced by the Polytechnic explaining that we could have access to their facilities (such as AV lecture halls, etc.) at outrageous hourly prices, and by us providing exactly zero hours per week of instruction or lecturing. You think this sounds ludicrous now, go read my chapter “The Love Fest” from Report from Singapore 4 to see how everyone’s attitudes have adjusted. (Rev: the situation has since improved, and we get along fine with them. Of course, we don’t need anything from them now. We were teaching for a while, and may be again soon, if we survive here.)
We encountered a few hiccups in the week before the new office was completed. The phones, which had been one of the bitchiest things to get installed in our temporary offices, were a natural locus for problems.
In the US when you want a phone line, you call Ma Bell. If the wiring is already installed, they throw a switch at central, and you have phones within 24 hours. In Singapore, of course, it’s a bureaucratic pain in the ass. In order to get phone lines in our temporary office space we first had to ask the Poly for permission to install the lines (despite the fact that the wiring was already in place from Sembawang Media’s earlier tenure in the same space). Of course the Poly also decided to charge us an installation fee for these jacks, even though the wiring and jacks were obviously already there. Once that came through, we had to have Singapore Telecom assign us numbers and turn on the lines. The combined effect was that we spent two weeks in the temporary space with only Joe’s handphone for contact with the outside world.
Weeks later, as our move to the new space was imminent, Sembawang Corporation issued us a batch of complementary two-dollar, Pacific Internet commemorative pre-paid phone cards. It was a good thing too, because some genius decided to switch off our phone lines one week before we actually moved out. We spent a panicky day but eventually managed to convince the powers-that-be that we were still in the temporary rooms, and could we have our phones back, please?
The Audio Nightmare Continues
In installment 4 I wrote of the odyssey I had faced getting Sembawang and West LA Music to agree on payment terms so I could get my equipment shipped out to Singapore. I ended that segment on a positive note, saying: “I forwarded the details of the compromise to Jasmine. Allegedly everything is cool. I am awaiting news of the wire transfer and subsequent shipment of my equipment.”
Uh huh. Right.
Well, as it turned out, my equipment didn’t arrive in Singapore until May 9th. Two months after I wrote those fateful words. My headaches here derived from the finance department in general, and one woman, Jasmine, in particular.
Before I left for CGDC I had arranged for half the audio studio funds to be wired to West LA Music in advance, and half to be guaranteed by letter of credit against delivery of the equipment in Singapore. I figured Jasmine, the woman who had been handling our matters in finance at Boat Quay, would now handle the details while I was in California, and I would return to find my equipment on the way.
I have seldom been more wrong.
I came back from CGDC and got back to work. Four days after returning, I got my first rumblings of trouble when Joe told me that Jasmine had called saying that she had needed some further piece of information to complete the letter of credit. Apparently she had received that information and proceeded. Just to be sure, however, I gave her a call. What she told me struck me with total amazement. She said that she had not done the letter of credit because she had “forgotten,” and asked if we would talk to West LA Music and see if they would ship the equipment if we faxed them a copy of wire transfer paperwork made out for the outstanding balance but unsigned, with a promise that we would sign the moment we saw the equipment.
I almost lost it right then and there. But I took a deep breath, counted to ten, and explained. “Well,” I said, “the reason why we are doing a letter of credit in the first place is because West LA won’t ship to us without any legal guarantee that they will get the second half of their money. They’ve never heard of us, and they are breaking their policy already by dealing with a letter of credit rather than demanding payment up front. We just spent a month making this arrangement, and I am not going to blow it now by going back on our deal and asking them to send the equipment without a legal guarantee that they will be paid.”
We talked about exactly why I wasn’t willing to embarass myself for a few more minutes, and Jasmine accepted my arguments. She said that she would get to work on the letter of credit right away.
A week later she had drawn up the letter of credit and circulated it through the Sembawang corporate office at Ngee Ann City towers for the appropriate signatures. She then faxed me a copy and faxed West LA a copy. I also faxed one to West LA myself, having learned that I could trust no one but myself to get the job done. Steve Galloway faxed me back from LA saying that their information was incomplete, and they didn’t know what bank they would be dealing with in Los Angeles. I called Jasmine to ask her what the story was, and imagine my surprise when she told me she had done the whole thing wrong, and we needed to start over from scratch.
I chewed pencils while Jasmine spent another week drawing up a new letter of credit and circulating it through Ngee Ann City again, for the appropriate signatures…again. It finally came back to me. She faxed me and Steve Galloway in LA. We finally got all of the information that West LA needed, and all of the information that the DBS Bank branch in LA needed (DBS is a big Singaporean bank).
But… it had taken so long to get the second letter worked out that the “ship by” date on the letter of credit had passed before we even faxed the letter to West LA Music. No one had thought to revise the date. In theory, West LA Music would have been in breach of the agreement the moment they accepted the letter. It took another few days for us to make all the arrangements to void the date on the letter.
With everything he needed, Steve Galloway went about filling the order. By the time the paperwork was sorted out it had been almost another month’s delay. Later, I learned that part of the problem was that Jasmine had never done a letter of credit before. That was why she tried to weasel out of having to do one. Rather than bringing on board someone who did know how to do it, or telling me so that I could find someone else, she did it wrong the first time. At least it finally went through. And I am so happy to have been able to broaden Jasmine’s professional horizons just a bit. When I told Yu Min about all this, he rolled his eyes and sighed, “Ah yes, Jasmine. She is very unreliable.” Thanks for the warning, bub.
Finally, on May 9th, my equipment arrived in Singapore. It had been three and a half months since I issued the purchase order.
A New Home
All was not doom and gloom in that period after we got back from CGDC, however. Finally, after much weeping and gnashing of teeth, the new permanent office was done on the week of April 22nd, it was completed and we moved in.
Oh space, glorious space. We had watched this office come together with such anticipation, and now it was done! We were as excited as at any time since we arrived. On Wednesday, the 24th of April, we moved in. Everybody was pressed into the chain gang and we hauled all our equipment across the road into our glorious new space. Finally everyone had a workspace of their own, and we had a conference room, and lots of storage. The place looked bare and stark at first, but by the end of the week it had begun to look quite personalized indeed. Before long it looked like we had been there for months, with posters, toys, and other bits of personal paraphernalia scattered about. The kids have made this office their own, and every cubicle is a little island of personality, if not of sanity.
We now have plants, an AV system, and even a functioning audio studio (sans computer), and we really feel like we can be comfortable here for the next few years (the lease is for three years).
Of course, some details came in over time. It took a couple of extra weeks before our card-key system was working properly. And we still haven’t gotten all the approvals we need to complete the kitchen and bathrooms, which remain empty and unused. With any luck all the details will be filled in across the next month or so, and we will be able to relax completely. The bathrooms are especially critical, as the polytechnic bathrooms are like little superfund toxic cleanup sites. They are truly noxious, and it is strictly BYO paper. Fortunately, we now have keys for the staff bathrooms which are a slight improvement and have paper. Sometimes.
Action and Adventure
The weekend after we moved into the office, we had grand plans. Paul Naylor, Rob, Mike, Honi, and I had all planned to go up to a village on the coast of Malaysia for four days, across the holiday weekend. We were going to go with Paul’s friend Alfred, whom we had hired but who had not started work yet, and Alfred’s lethally perky girlfriend, Guat. We were going to go on the cheap and sleep in a Kampung (Malay for village), and soak up some sun and surf. Alfred supposedly had a line on a van that we could borrow to drive up through peninsular Malaysia.
Ready for adventure, Mike and I went shopping for camping supplies. We bought knives, ponchos, flashlights, water purification tablets, army blankets, first aid kits, and everything else we thought we’d need to rough it for four days. Then the trip fell through when the van we were going to use dried up all of a sudden. We went into a flurry of sudden activity, dialing up every rental agency in Singapore and in Johor Bahru, but we were unable to locate another van. We then investigated other options such as the train, or even flying to Kuala Lumpur and taking a taxi, but everything seemed like more trouble than the trip was worth, so, in despondency, we gave up. (Only later did we learn that a friend of Alfred’s had gone up into Johor Bahru that Saturday, and successfully rented a van at the first place he tried… Fortune favors the bold.)
So we came up with plan B. Saturday we all had to work at the office, but we would all spend Sunday afternoon at Alfred’s place, near the office, playing tennis, swimming, and having a barbecue. We convened at the office on Sunday and worked during the morning. Then, with the afternoon, came a whopping great thunderstorm that put paid to our plans for recreation at Alfred’s.
So we all spent our Sunday afternoon at the office trying to figure out what to do to kill the remaining four days of the holiday. Mostly through the diligence of Honi, who prowled the local tourism web sites relentlessly, we discovered that we could take a one hour ferry ride from Singapore to the Indonesian island of Batam. Paul Naylor explained that there was a water theme park there called Water Fun City where we could Jet Ski, bowl, etc. Then we could catch the ferry back the same evening. Buoyed by the spirit of adventure, we all agreed to meet at the Singapore ferry terminal at the World Trade Center the next morning.
Little did we know just what an odyssey we had created for ourselves. The next morning, Monday, Rob, Mike and I all got up early and went down to the World Trade Center to meet Paul and Honi. Mike Rob and I were waiting when Rob suddenly realized that he had forgotten his passport. It was a twenty minute cab ride home, and we were planning to be on a 9:45 ferry. Rob said he would try to get his passport, but that if he wasn’t back by nine thirty we were to abandon him and go ahead ourselves. We set about to kill time, and, fortunately, Rob made it back with a few minutes to spare.
With the ferry departure time looming we ran into the ticketing office upstairs at the ferry terminal, where the lady sold us tickets for the Batam ferry and said that we were still in time for the 9:45 departure. We went scrambling down to check in (remember, it is an international trip, even if it is only an hour), and arrived at the check-in counter at 9:32, where the woman told us it was too late…9:30 cut off. Well, after Malaysia and Alfred’s we were not going to be denied again, even though there was another ferry in forty-five minutes. Now, bear in mind that this ferry service is run by Sebawang, our parent company! We wheedled and pleaded for five minutes to no avail, complaining that the woman who had sold us the tickets upstairs had told us that we were in time. “Well, ask for a refund,” the woman at the counter said. “According to the computer it is too late.” Paul and Honi took the initiative in bitching and moaning and eventually wore the woman down to the point where she called a man over to help. She gave him all of our passports and he immediately began hustling off. Mike’s and my warning bells went off and we went trucking off after this guy, eager to not lose our passports. We followed him back upstairs to the other office where our tickets had been sold to us. I though he was going to unilaterally cancel our tickets, but after some discussion we were lead back downstairs, through immigration, and into the departure lounge where, true to form, boarding had not even begun yet. We waited about ten minutes and then boarded. With our passports.
An hour later we arrived at the port on Batam, a small city called Sekupang. A brief trip through immigration, and we were out hailing two taxis for the fifteen minute ride to Water Fun City.
I thought Singapore taxis were bad. Indonesian taxis are simply bald flirtation with death. Mike and I shared a taxi to Water Fun City, and for part of the ride we actually thought Indonesians drove on the right, as people in the US do (but Singaporeans do not). No, we learned, it was just our taxi driver.
Nevertheless we arrived at “Water Fun City” in one piece, although somewhat depleted of adrenaline. Water Fun City is not an amusement park, at least not in the American sense. It is a bunch of loosely connected and unrelated businesses scattered along a half-mile of somewhat nasty seashore. There is a go-cart track (that would no doubt be sued out of business instantly in the states), a water-ski place, a fly-by-night monkey show, a jet ski rental place, a restaurant, and a day resort with archery, bowling and some other amusements. Since the cab had let us off at the go cart track, we made that our first stop.
All of us except for Mike debased ourselves to ride the go carts. Actually there wasn’t much debasement involved, but Mike seemed to think that he would appear silly on a go cart, so he watched our stuff while the rest of us raced for ten laps. It was quite a hoot. My first go cart wheezed along and then died after half a lap, but my second one was quite zippy. I think we were doing thirty miles an hour or so. Well, it felt that fast four inches off of the track. At least we had helmets. Rob, Paul and I had some good road duels.
We all finished our race with no broken bones or road rash, and walked on down to the Jet Ski rental place. Along the way we passed a bungee jump attraction. It was the type where they lift you from a crane and suspend you over the water. You don’t get dipped, but it provides a measure of safety, allegedly. There was much good natured ribbing, but what it came down to was that none of us had the guts to try a bungee jump in Indonesia, where safety regulation is probably not all that it can be. We were also leery as we had an average weight of over two hundred pounds, and most of the jumpers were Asians of considerably less weight. It was very easy for me to envision myself plunging into the water and breaking my neck in the mud below. So no bungee jumping. Maybe next time.
The jet skiing was fun, however. Mike, Paul and I rented jet skis for half an hour and went streaking off across the sound between Batam and it’s dinky neighboring islands. It took all of one minute for all three of us to ride into a seaweed patch and foul our engines. Paul and Mike limped back to shore, but I had to be given a ride and my ski towed in.
After waiting half an hour for our engines to be cleared we went streaking off again with considerably more success, as we now knew which areas to avoid. It was quite a lot of fun. We were riding the sit-down water-bike style craft, and they can really get up a head of steam. It took us a bit of practice to learn how to control them well, but it was a blast once I figured it out. I liked it so much that I bought another half hour and took Honi for a ride on the back of my Ski. I managed to dump us both in the drink, and I now have a scar on my knee from clambering back onto the bike, which turns out to be really tough to do. I also managed to foul my engine again, a good half mile away from the beach where the rental place operated, or anywhere else for that matter. I was lucky, however, and managed to clear the engine myself before Honi and I drifted out to sea and were eaten by the tiger sharks.
It was quite interesting zipping among the little islands around Batam. There was an honest to god, dirt poor, stilt village along one of the beaches. I had a real hankering to explore it, but with an apparent population of about thirty I figured that I would be somewhat conspicuous.
After lunch and the second jet ski ride it was almost time to head back to Sekupang. We wanted to catch the second to last ferry out because we figured that the last one would be a madhouse, it being the end of a holiday weekend.
We arrived to full scale bedlam at the Batam ferry terminal in Sekupang. Mike would later liken it to the evacuation of Saigon. Everyone wanted to get off the island of Batam that evening. It rapidly became clear that, not only would we not get on the second to last ferry, but that we would be lucky to get on the last one.
The entire terminal was jammed full of people. There was breathing room only around the edges. Near the windows of the ferry services that were still operating boats that evening the crush was unbearable. I estimate that the temperature in the un-airconditioned room was near 110 degrees, with humidity saturated. Furthermore, many of the people in the room were smoking, so there was a blue haze filling the air. There was a great deal of yelling and jostling, particularly around the Sembawang Auto Batam ferry, the one we were ticketed for.
Paul and Mike fought their way into the crowd. It took twenty minutes, but Paul was eventually able to hand in our tickets at the check in window. Now, rather than checking you in at the spot and sending you to the departure lounge, the system worked like this: They collected your tickets and immigration paperwork and put them in the queue. Then you waited for them to process the tickets and announce your name over a loudspeaker, at which point you went to the pickup window to collect them. The problem was that the crowd around the pickup window was horrifying. Most people couldn’t make it to the window at all, and had to have their tickets handed back to them through the crowd, after identifying themselves with wild gesticulations and yelling. So we fought our way into the crowd and waited for our names to be called.
For two hours.
People kept on being called up, and it kept on not being us. I would have despaired at ever getting home that evening had not another ferry been added on to the regular schedule. As it was I began to make serious contingency plans for us to have to spend the night on Batam, where the hotels were likely booked for the holiday weekend. There was serious discussion of having to spend the night in the ferry terminal, although we suspected it might close. At one point my skin started to get prickly, and I began to feel light headed from the heat and smoke. Both Mike and I had to go sit outside in the rain for half an hour to cool off. Paul Naylor and Rob did the brunt of the work, although we did relieve Paul briefly. As the marathon continued we consoled ourselves by telling each other that we were leading lives of action and adventure, and that we had crammed more adventure into that one day than the rest of Silkworm had experienced since moving to Singapore.
Once the crowd began to thin out, and departure of the last ferry was imminent we became very worried. We pushed our way back up to the window where Paul asked if any of us had a Sembawang business card on us. Remember, the ferry service was a Sembawang Maritime operation. I, fortunately, had one Sembawang card on me, the one where I keep my as yet un-memorized home phone number written down. I normally only carry Games Online cards, which don’t have the Sembawang seahorse logo on them. After this, I’ll always carry a couple of Sembawang Media cards as well as my GOL cards. Paul waved my card in front of the glass until someone noticed us, and then he asked what had happened to our tickets. It’s a good thing he checked because, as it turned out, we could have waited there until doomsday and never been called. Someone had misplaced our tickets and immigration paperwork. After a few minutes they located the tickets and issued us boarding passes. With time running out we sprinted through the immigration check and on to the ferry. We made it, it turned out, with about fifteen minutes to spare. Go figure, after all that the ferry wasn’t even full. The Saigonesque atmosphere was perpetuated, however, when the police came on to the ferry just before departure, grabbed some guy sitting a few rows in front of us, and frogmarched him off the ferry.
Fortunately, the ferry left before they came back for us…
By the time we got back to Singapore and took a cab home it had been the longest and most taxing day I had spent since moving to Singapore. But it had also been one of the most fun. I was never so ready to collapse into my own bed, which had seemed unattainable two short hours before.
In the wake of this adventure it is worth making a couple of observations about Indonesia. In many ways, they mirror my observations about Johor Bahru, Malaysia. Next to Singapore, Sekupang looked extremely grimy and poor. The overall feel of Batam is much more third world than Singapore. Poverty is visible, and it feels markedly less safe. On the other hand, it was interesting to see. I look forward to exploring more of Indonesia.
Eschew the Ordinary, Disdain the Commonplace
The weekend of action and adventure wouldn’t have been complete had we not tried to resuscitate our barbecue idea on Tuesday evening. Honi invited us all over to her apartment complex for an afternoon of swimming and a cookout. So the Indonesia veterans banded together one more time for a final evening of action and adventure.
Everything started well as most of the gang went swimming, and Honi and I played a bit of tennis before joining the others in the pool. Finally, Mike noticed some lightning and threatening clouds moving our way, however, and suggested that we better get out of the pool and start cooking if we didn’t want to be flooded out.
Too late. We got the coals lit just as the storm swept in over us, with typically heavy Singaporean downpour and some of the most spectacular lightning we have seen here. And there we were out in the rain holding four umbrellas over the barbecue pit and bailing out the water that threatened to extinguish our fragile coals at any moment. I still remember Mike looking over the barbecue pit at me, being pelted with rain as he held his umbrella over the coals, with smoke blowing in his face and lightning touching down all around us. “Remember,” he said, “we are leading lives of action and adventure.” He continued by explaining a personal philosophy of his. “Eschew the ordinary, disdain the commonplace.” It became our motto for the evening, which, despite the best efforts of the storm, was actually a success. So we beat our chests and reveled in our triumph over nature as men and women of Action and Adventure, and it was one of the best weekends we have had in Singapore. All because our trip to Malaysia fell through.
In the wake of these adventures, Joe has come by a second, small Hi-8 video camera. It is more durable and cheaper (and disposable) than the big digital video camera he has. We call it Dangercam. We plan on taking the Dangercam with us on future adventures. We are even going to get the scuba case for it. Should be fun.
Meet More Staff
On May 2nd, three more staff people joined us: Hardie, Jimmy, and Constance. Since then we have also been joined by Karen, Arthur, and Alfred. Without further ado, here they are.
Hardie (Minion Writer): Hardie, you will remember, went through the trials of Job before we could actually bring him on board. Hardie is an Australian, somewhere in his forties. He looks a bit out of place on our staff. He is, on the other hand, a very literate fellow and a good writer, and has proved to be an idea demon. He is also an accomplished musician and percussionist, and he has taken a great interest in the audio studio since I got it set up. Hardie should be a good influence on the younger Minion writers, bringing a slightly broader literary perspective. He was thrilled to finally be able to come on board here, having feared for some time that it might not work out.
Jimmy (UNIX Programmer): Jimmy came on board to help our young programmer Vincent streamline the Minion server engine that is the core of Year of the Rat and Breaking Glass. He is an older and more experienced programmer, although Vincent actually has a head start on Minion. Jimmy is from Hong Kong. Other than that, I don’t know much about him. He is a rather quiet man, and remains outside the GOL social group, although he is pleasant and friendly. He is a family man, which puts him with Hardie and Joe as our only staff members who have kids.
Constance (Breaking Glass Artist): Constance is a bit of a paradox. She is an extremely chipper, friendly Singaporean woman with a sunny, outgoing personality. She produces some very dark, moody artwork, however, so we though that she would be perfect as a Breaking Glass scenic and character artist. Her work is surreal and gloomy. She does have a bit to learn about the Breaking Glass style, but she is talented and is progressing well.
When Constance first came on board she was the first and only person in our artists’ area. I felt a little sorry for her as she was somewhat isolated. We asked Shawn to go work back there as well so that they could be isolated together. Since then, however, Alfred and Karen have also set up shop back there, so it is a bit more populated.
Karen (Year of the Rat Artist): For Year of the Rat we wanted to be able to include traditional style Chinese brushwork. Called san sui, you have seen it in traditional Chinese landscape and character illustration. As you might expect, however, san sui artists do not grow on trees nor go looking for work at video game companies. Karen’s background was in computer illustration for sprite animation in computer games and multimedia. We had no real need for that style, but we asked her to produce some sample san sui style pieces. We didn’t have high expectations when we asked her to do these demonstration pieces, having just spent half an hour pouring over her enormous and very nice portfolio that was full of lovely artwork that would fit perfectly into a Sesame Street software title, but we gave her a shot anyway. Well, she knocked our socks off with four demo pieces, despite never having attempted the style before. Two of the pieces were so good we framed them and hung them in our conference room. She is a talented woman, and will contribute a lot to Year of the Rat. (Rev: Mike and I have since become good friends with Karen, and she has served as a guide on some of our photo tours.)
Arthur (Windows C++ Programmer): I don’t know much about Arthur, other than that I apologize to him regularly since he doesn’t have a computer yet. We learned of his existence through Isaac, one of our 3D artists and stole him away from Creative, makers of the SoundBlaster card. He seems like a pleasant guy, and he has been chatting with Isaac and Rob quite a bit about iPower, which he will eventually be working on.
Alfred (2D and 3D Artist): Alfred is one of Paul Naylor’s good friends, and someone that Paul recommended to us. He is a very talented artist, comfortable with 2D and 3D work in a variety of media. He is also a very friendly fellow, and hangs out a lot with Paul, Mike, Rob and me when we go pubbing on weekends. I am currently introducing him to that crazy bebop music, which he is interested in. I gave him some Miles and Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. That ought to keep him busy for a while. He’s dating girl who looks very young, but it turns out that she is very pleasant and friendly, and actually older than he is.
To Hell and Back: The Story of our Computers
Many of you may know To Hell and Back as a movie starring Audie Murphy, about the World War II adventures of Audie Murphy. This, however, is not the story of Audie Murphy. It is the story of Joe Pantuso and SemCorp, two forces that fought a gargantuan battle of wills to decide the fate of Italy… Sorry, Italy was Audie Murphy. I mean of Games Online.
Here is the story, and a long, sad tale it is. This was the event that made us come close to packing our bags and bailing out of Singapore.
Way, way back, on January 31, we first issued a purchase order for our full complement of computers. After searching Singapore for a dealer who could meet our needs at a reasonable price, and failing, we went to Micron, in the states. Micron is a reputable mail order dealer that makes excellent machines. Joe and I have both had good experiences with them. They had been responsive to us, whereas we had been greeted with a glaring round of indifference by Singaporean companies. So they started building our computers and we drew up a purchase order for twenty-seven machines at a price of $342,000 Singapore. Not a bad price for our machines.
But Yu Min had warned us that we would have problems trying to buy directly from an American vendor. He warned us that questions would be raised about maintenance and service. We explained that we were saving almost $100,000 Singapore over what it would cost to buy these machines locally, especially since P-6 machines did not seem to be available in Singapore yet. Micron had also agreed to send us replacement parts Fedex at their cost. In addition to which, as a room full of computer experts, our maintenance skills are pretty good. But Yu Min was right, and our purchase order was rejected by finance. Micron, who had already started assembling our machines, were left holding the bag, and our salesman, Richard Gu, watched a third of a million dollar sale evaporate under his nose.
So we started a new search for a vendor with an office in Singapore who could meet our needs. We faxed quotation requests to Dell, Primefield (a Compaq dealer), and a couple of other companies. At the same time, we were engaged in buying a copy of the 3D modeling and animating program Softimage. Softimage recommended Intergraph computers, among others, so we also contacted them. Dell, Primefield and Intergraph all returned quotes. Nobody else did, despite the size of our order.
From the get go it became clear that Intergraph was out for our business. All three companies were relatively diligent in responding our inquiries, although I had to do some arm twisting at Primefield. Dell was very responsive, but they were unable to meet all of our configuration needs, as we were very specific. Intergraph beat the other two hands down, however. Their salesman, Lee Hon Chuan, paid us several visits and worked personally with us to refine our configurations and get a good price. Neither of the other companies did that. Intergraph also lowered prices after quoting to us so that they would have the lowest prices on all configurations. Although the company is based in Mobile Alabama, they had a good local service and sales office, and had even sold some machines to Sembawang Maritime. We figured it was a can’t miss deal. We drew up a new purchase order.
Of course, it took a while. First, the facts. We issued our Intergraph purchase order on March 5, a little over a month after the Micron order. It was for 26 machines at a price of $516,000 Singapore. Although we liked Intergraph, by coming to a dealer in Singapore the price had gone up over $100,000 Sing just as we had predicted, even after accounting for raising our specifications (actual PO price difference, $173,000 Sing, or roughly $115,000 US). Nonetheless, we figured we had met all of Sembawang’s conditions. Shortly after returning from CGDC, in early April, we heard that the money for the computers had been approved by Sembawang finance, and that a purchase order was being prepared.
Intergraph was called to Boat Quay three times. Three times they were given the run-around, and sent back without their supposedly approved purchase order. Sembawang was trying to force them to lower their price. On the first visit to Boat Quay they agreed to lower the price to 500k even. Then they agreed to eat the sales tax, to the tune of another 15k. Eventually, with the appearance of DEC on the horizon (see below) they raised the specs of the machines without raising the prices. At the end they were offering machines to us at 5% below their cost, taking a loss to make us the sale. They did this because we would have been one of their largest clients in Singapore, and they could have used the fact that we were using Intergraph machines exclusively as a marketing point for future sales. Intergraph is making a big push world-wide to get their computers in the hands of people in the entertainment biz, and for their Singapore office that means us since there is no movie industry here and no other game companies worth mentioning. It seemed like a great arrangement to us. We were getting outrageous machines at outrageous prices. It would not work out this way, however.
The Forces of Darkness Emerge
Rev: This is the most sensitive part of the report from Singapore, and is based solely upon my impressions and understanding of events. I have de-personalized it a bit so as to avoid making pointless public attacks on individuals. The purpose here is to recount our experience bluntly, and the feelings that arose from our professional relationship with our parent company at that time.
After Intergraph agreed to lower the price twice and were still not issued their purchase order we heard from Chris. Chris asked if we were interested in buying our machines from DEC rather than Intergraph. We had forged a good relationship with the Intergraph guys, but we decided to see what DEC had going for them. We looked at some specs for their machines. Joe told Intergraph that DEC had emerged as a dark horse, and Intergraph responded by boosting the configs on our machines without raising prices. They boosted disk space, upgraded our proposed P-6 machines to dual processor, etc. The proposed upgrade was worth several tens of thousands of dollars, bringing the list price of our order to nearly a cool million Sing before the discount.
As a result of the config boost we decided once and for all that Intergraph deserved our business. But someone had other plans. What was happening was that the decision had apparently been made a month prior. We were going to get our machines from DEC, end of story. This decision was made despite Yu Min’s warning to the powers-that-be that this would delay us. Our only guess was that someone was friends with someone else at DEC Singapore, and wanted to send themthis chunk of business. It bothered us that, as near as we could tell, someone was prioritizing politics over the welfare of our company, and that was when our relationship with Sembawang began to get a little rocky.
We could have survived this incident with our faith intact if one thing had been done differently. If our pals at Sembawang had come to us and simply said, as soon as they had made the decision, “Look, guys, we need to buy the machines from DEC, that’s just the way it is,” we would have been disappointed, and sorry for the Intergraph guys who had put so much work into the deal, but we would have accepted it. But it didn’t work that way. They tried to slip the deal around through the back door, and, in doing so, abrogated our trust. Here is how the whole thing went down.
Joe ultimately decided that Intergraphs were the better machines to go with. Our feeling was that they were a superior product better suited to our needs, and that the Intergraph guys deserved our business because of that, as well as their outstanding service. Furthermore, we figured that we would be Intergraph’s largest client in Singapore, and therefore we would continue to get outstanding service. Conversely, we would never be more than a tiny little blip on DEC’s radar screen (rev: fears that have since proved well founded as Intergraph pays us regular visits while the DEC reseller remains completely invisible). Since Joe had been told that he had the authority to make all of our technical and equipment related purchasing decisions, we assumed that this was the end of it. Wrong.
There was much hemming and hawing. We were told that we should request a new round of bids on the computer contract from Intergraph and DEC, and give the order to the company who provided the lowest bid, thus giving DEC a fair chance to compete. Joe agreed, and he shook hands on the deal with Sembawang after being told that a PO would be issued by the end of the day to the company that had the best machines at the best price. Joe was confident that Intergraph would provide the lowest bid, as they were willing to take a loss. We re-submitted the specs to Intergraph and DEC. Sure enough, Intergraph won. Again, we assumed that was the end of it. Again, that was not the case. We were made to submit the specs to Intergraph and DEC two more times. Each time, Intergraph lowered their prices a little more. Each time, DEC lost. The company ultimately refused to authorize a purchase order to Intergraph, regardless.
Joe was enraged. The company had reneged on a handshake deal, three times promising to issue a purchase order to the company winning the bid, and three times refusing when Intergraph came out with the lowest price. As far as Joe was concerned, we had been led down the garden path, and in the immediate wake of recent discussions to discuss our relationship with the company! Over and over the importance of mutual trust had been stressed, and now this! Our faith in our parent company, and the decisions that were being made on our “behalf,” plummeted.
One side effect of this meltdown was that morale in the office plunged to an all time low. The staff had seen and heard us talking to people from the head office, and they had heard Joe and me talking about the problems we were having. Mike went into a deep funk and even considered not coming back from E3 for a while (Mike and I were gone for ten days of this crisis while we were at E3 in mid May). The general staff was definitely not encouraged. Joe and I tried to be as honest with them as we could about what was going on, but was a time of exceptionally low spirits in the office.
One issue that was raised during this process was that Sembawang wanted to deal with DEC because they did know someone at the DEC reseller, and simply felt more comfortable dealing with someone they knew. Well, we suggested, how about our bosses meet with the Intergraph guys and get to know them? We felt sure that they would be as impressed as we were that they were stand up guys, and a pleasure to deal with. So we asked them to meet with Lee Hon Chuan, our contact at Intergraph. They resisted, but eventually agreed.
It was a disaster. The rep from Sembawang was forty five minutes late to the meeting, and he was apparently rude to Hon Chuan and his boss from Intergraph. He also made demands of them that no vendor in their right mind would accept. He told them that, if they got the order, he would expect all the machines to be delivered in two weeks (this in a country where the standard delivery time for a computer is 8 weeks and speedy phone service takes 2), or a 25% penalty would be assessed. He also said that if anyone related to an Intergraph employee was found to be working for Sembawang Media a 100% penalty would be imposed. This was a direct shot at us because they knew we wanted to hire Lee Hon Chuan’s brother, Lee Hon Kit, part time to do architectural modeling for us. This was an utter coincidence. We had first interviewed Hon Kit in December, and found out only after we had been dealing with Intergraph for a while that Hon Chuan was his brother. They made it so that we would lose Hon Kit if we pressed forward with our desire to order Intergraphs. Our sole concern was to get the best machines at the best price. Even Sito Tuck Seng, the UNIX expert at Boat Quay, backed us up that Intergraphs were the best choice, but Sembawang remained determined to alienate them.
The meeting was almost the last straw for Intergraph. Hon Chuan phoned Joe and told him that they were thinking of giving up, which was exactly what our bosses wanted them to do. Joe told them to hang in there, and that we were adamant in our desire to purchase Intergraph machines.
Yu Min Drops the Bomb
In the middle of this whole deal Yu Min informed us that he was quitting. Actually, we had heard this from Chris a few days before Yu Min announced it officially to us, but it did come as a surprise. It didn’t come as a big surprise, however. Yu Min had made his displeasure at being assigned to Games Online full time known to us already ( Details of this in installment 4). We were toldtold us that there were some other reasons as well. We heard that Yu Min had supposedly been dissatisfied with the level of respect we had been showing him. Apparently we had been too familiar, and he had been insulted that we treated him as a peer and equal. This surprised us, as we had asked Yu Min when we first started working with him if it was all right if we were casual. We had dinner together on many occasions, and he had always seemed casual and sociable. And Chris had supposedly told him to be friendly and casual with us. All Yu Min told us was the had received a better offer, and would be moving on. This turned out to be not strictly true, we heard. Yu Min had only some leads, and nothing concrete.
Joe was not content to let our relationship with Yu Min expire this way, so he talked to Yu Min alone for a while, and learned that the “real” reason Yu Min was leaving was not us, or a better job offer. It was friction with other SembMedia employees assigned to work with us. Yu Min told Joe straight out that he had no problem with us, and that he simply felt that he could not work with our other bosses any more. Based on things Yu Min had said to us before, and how comfortable our relationship with him had always felt, this sounded much more reasonable to us.
We were sorry to see Yu Min go, but it was not a major impediment to our work. Florence, our new admin assistant had come on board, and she was a major miracle worker. Florence had taken over much of the work Yu Min had been doing working with the Polytechnic and being our liaison to Boat Quay. Yu Min had done very little for us the preceding month, so, despite being disappointed that he was leaving when we felt that we had such potential for success, we were not hurt at all. It was a deeper window into some of the problems that existed with our superiors, however.
(Rev: The full story has never emerged. We have heard differing reports. Consensus seems to be that it was not us, but that Yu Min wanted to be doing financial work and felt that babysitting a bunch of ang moh did not appeal that much. It was nothing to do with us personally. Yu Min has re-emerged as a consultant during our recent death throes.)
Resolution…Of a Sort
So Yu Min left, but we still needed to solve the issue of the computer purchase. Finally a decision was made. A final round of specifications would be issued to six (yes, the field was thrown open again) vendors, who would all be asked to make a sealed-envelope tender offer to Sembawang Media one week later. All the specifications would be drafted by Joe, and all the conditions would be identical (although it turned out that the conditions, such as delivery time, kind of stacked in DEC’s favor). Anthony Chua from Sembawang Media’s finance department held a meeting with all the vendors to go over the conditions. Joe was pointedly not invited. (Rev: Joe has a habit of getting himself disinvited from these kinds of things. He has recently been disinvited from our last-ditch investment discussions, due to expressing his opinions a little too freely for local comfort.) Supposedly, the final decision making would also be done by Anthony, who would render a choice based solely on financial considerations after assessing all returned bids that met our technical specifications and conditions.
We waited a week and a half, and the bids came back. Only DEC, Intergraph, and AST (who was not in serious contention) returned bids. Joe was, again, pointedly not invited to be present when the bids were unsealed or compared. We never saw the actual bids. We had to go on what we heard from Chris, Anthony, and the vendors. What we heard varied over time, which annoyed us to no end. The first thing we heard was from Intergraph. Hon Chuan called us and said that Anthony had told them that they had the best price on several configurations. (Joe says now that he may have misinterpreted Hon Chuan, however.) But the next day, we heard from Anthony that Intergraph had not, in fact won. DEC had won on price for all our standard desktop and programmer machines. Anthony said that the only computer that Intergraph had won a contract for was the audio studio system, because none of the other companies could handle dual monitor configurations. A purchase order was issued to Intergraph for the audio system, which they were now taking a big loss on with no relative marketing gain. A purchase order went to DEC for everything else except for our 3D machines. (We had arranged to have loaner computers delivered in the 3D configurations so we could do a performance evaluation before making a decision).
We are not sure how DEC finally beat Intergraph’s prices. It never happened before this round. It was quite a sudden turnaround. Perhaps conditions were set that heavily favored DEC, and that, even if Intergraph had the best prices they would not be able to meet the other requirements. I find it unlikely that DEC was as willing to sell computers to us at a loss as Intergraph was, because they get no marketing cachet, dealing as they do with many clients much larger than us. It is, in fact, possible that DEC simply beat Intergraph fair and square, but it just seemed unlikely to us in the wake of everything else. Intergraph won three previous bids. Why should that suddenly change? I am not making any accusations here. We just found the whole process opaque and poorly managed, and communication with us inadequate. Since we were willfully excluded from the evaluation of the bids and the establishing of conditions, we can only theorize about the decision making processes involved. We definitely felt that this matter would have been dragged out one way or another until DEC won, for whatever reason. DECs were forced down our throat despite promises to the contrary. DECs in and of themselves are not bad machines (rev: but did we have some whopping problems with ours, detailed in installment 6), and under other circumstances we would be pleased to have them. But not when we had spent three months forming a relationship with a company that had better prices on a product better suited to our needs.
And furthermore, if DECs were all we would ever be allowed to buy, I would have appreciated being told that when we first drew up our Micron purchase order five months ago.
Revision Note: I should point out here that we trace most of our problems around the DEC computers not to DEC itself, but to the local reseller.
And now the dust is settling. Our DEC machines are on the way. Intergraph is building my audio studio computer (which makes me happy). Sembawang Media has done its best to trash our relationship with two major computer suppliers, Micron and Intergraph.
We are still in the process of evaluating our 3D loaner machines. Supposedly the choice as to which systems we will order will be left up to us. I’ll believe it when I see it. The arrival of the 3D evaluation machines has been a microcosm of how I believe our relationships with DEC and Intergraph fare relative to one another. DEC delivered a substandard Alpha machine that did not match our specs, with a fourteen inch monitor, and no root password so we could not install any software. The machine was delivered by courier, and no one from DEC came to call. The Intergraph machine, however, was hand delivered by Lee Hon Chuan and his assistant, who set it up and made sure that everything was working to our satisfaction. The machine met our specs exactly, except that the 21” monitor was slightly better than the ones we had specified. We learned later that DEC had given us an entirely wrong machine, and we are expecting delivery of the correct one in the next few days.
Also, a flash update. Yesterday, Intergraph faxed us a copy of their sealed bid. We also got hold of the DEC purchase orders issued by Sembawang Media for our machines. Here is how the numbers shook down. DEC won on the programmer workstations and servers. Intergraph, however, had a better price for the standard desktops which constitute the bulk of our machines. And yet they were ordered from DEC.
Other things have emerged in the aftermath of the computer purchases. Anthony, from finance, has been distancing himself from the entire process. He told Joe in a phone call that everything he did was above board and by the book. For the record, I don’t doubt it. With Chris and Jek Kian Jin (SembMedia CTO) obviously not getting along too well, I wonder how Chris’ political position in the company is. If something happens to him, what happens to us? (Rev: we are learning that right now.)
Joe and I think that Chris has overextended himself disastrously. (Rev: he has since admitted as much to us, telling us that he spilled a lot of political blood during this period.) We wonder if he isn’t headed for a hard fall soon. Since Chris is apparently running short of allies at Sembawang Media, we could be swimming in extremely perilous waters. I have also been casing the Sembawang Media rumor net courtesy of some of my good friends down at Boat Quay, and what I hear about Chris’ relationships within the company is not good. It will be an interesting summer for Chris, and, by extension, for us.
I leave room for the possibility that everything I have written here is incorrect speculation and that all the rumors I have heard may be groundless. Based on the way things look now, however, it could be rough sailing ahead.
What has definitely happened however, is that our professional relationship with Chris has been taxed, which is bad because he is the person responsible for us being here. Now, we have allies elsewhere in Sembawang Media, so it is not necessarily catastrophic, but it is one more thing to worry about. On the other hand, we still get along well with Chris on a personal level.
This trial has affected Joe more than the rest of us. With the overall health of Games Online primarily Joe’s concern, he has had a lot on his plate. As this event progressed, Joe’s communication with Sembawang became more and more acrimonious. Under stress one day, Joe even wrote one note so nasty that he realized it might get us sent packing, and he trashed it before sending it. Nonetheless, we have instituted a policy of proofreading the especially sensitive e-mails before they are sent, just so Joe can be sure that, in his anger, he isn’t writing something that is going to really scotch our relationship with Sembawang.
Another consideration in the wake of all this was our relationship with our staff. It helps that we can now tell them, with confidence, that computers are on the way. Of course, three months ago, when the original Intergraph purchase was approved, we also told them computers were on the way. Also, however, I wonder what kind of confidence our staff has in us now, and in our ability to provide the tools and resources they need? What do they think of us personally? We took Vince, our Singaporean programmer, to E3. While we were there, I grilled him. He said that, so far, the staff still hangs with us and sees the bureaucracy as the source of our troubles. Still, I wonder about it sometime. There has been a lot of fuzziness and directionless drifting in the office as this whole soap opera is unfolding. One of our jobs across the next week (June 17-21) is deciding what course to chart for everyone in the office across the next couple of months, and then meeting with every staff member to make sure they each know what they are responsible for. With computers supposedly arriving next week we can’t wait any longer.
At any rate, our computers from DEC are supposed to arrive next Wednesday or Thursday, or the dealer is liable for a 25% penalty. We’ll see what happens.
E3 and the Myth of the Great Satan
And so, while all the Computer Opera was being played out in full Wagnerian tilt, Mike and I went back to the States on May 10 for the Electronic Entertainment Exposition in Los Angeles. I’ll write about the trip here, but not the details of the show itself. For that, you can read my separate Report from E3.
The trip back was interesting. I caught some raving Southeast Asian flu the day before we were supposed to fly. Consequently the flight in, which was on United (a step down from Singapore Airlines), was the most miserable flight of my entire life. Nonetheless, we arrived in San Francisco on Friday, where I was picked up by my brother. I spent the next three days lying on my fathers couch at Liberty street, recovering. I spent some time with my father and brother, but when I was ambulatory I spent most of my time with Christie. The only real excursion I was up for was a Mother’s Day visit to Christie’s mom in Marin. I spent most of Monday doing the requisite batch of errands that always awaits me on visits back to the States. I went to RTG in Berkeley, where I showed off the 3D animation that we had done in Softimage for Breaking Glass. Although still rough, it was cool enough to impress everyone at RTG, the company from which we had licensed Breaking Glass.
I had a chance to hang out with Jose on Monday night, which was cool. I looked in on little Crictor, my ball python, who had not eaten since I had left. I was pleasantly surprised to see that she looked exactly the same as when I left in November, and was not the wasted, skeletal little python I had been expecting. She has since eaten, which makes me happy. I also dropped briefly by my buddy Steve’s place in San Francisco, where many fine beers were foisted on me. It was a pleasant evening.
The big event of the trip came on Tuesday when Christie and I had The Talk. We broke up. The discussion had started when I was back for CGDC, but we never really finished it. This time we did finish it.
On Wednesday Christie took me to the airport where I met Mike MacDonald. We flew the short hop down to LA, leaving the pouring rain of Northern California for the perpetual sun of the southland. We arrived in Los Angeles that afternoon to find Vincent Phua, one of our Singaporean programmers, already sacked out in the hotel. Vincent had flown straight to LA to meet us, since there was no reason for him to visit the Bay Area.
The three of us spent the next few days exploring E3. It was quite a show. It is huge, glossy, and loud. In fact, it is so huge that it is moving to larger facilities in Atlanta next year, which should be exactly no fun at all. We were all impressed by the huge lack of creativity being demonstrated in the industry. Nonetheless the show was quite a bit of fun. For details on the professional aspects read the Report from E3.
My good friend Dave Friedland from Capcom was at the show, as was our mutual friend James Kucera, also of Capcom. We all hung out together. I hadn’t had time to see Dave in the Bay Area that week, so it was nice to hang with him at E3. We also rendezvoused with some friends of Mike’s and all went out to dinner. It was quite pleasant. I even bumped into Yu Min at the show. We’re not sure why he was there, as he had resisted all our earlier attempts to persuade him to go. The official line was he was dispatched by Chris, although I wondered if he was job hunting. We already knew he was quitting by this time, although he hadn’t left yet. We didn’t spend much time with him there as he had his own agenda and was staying out by the airport.
Now I would like to say a few words about downtown Los Angeles. It may be the most lifeless cosmopolitan downtown I have ever encountered. Downtown Milwaukee may not be much to write home about, but at least it has several great restaurants. Plus the GenCon scene is always fun and freaky. The E3 scene is cold and impersonal, and this is not helped by downtown LA. First of all, the sidewalks roll up precisely at seven PM. Second, the only restaurant we could find outside of the Omni hotel was a fast-food burrito joint. (There did turn out to be one good restaurant downtown, but we only found it on our last night there, when I went out with James, his buddy Mike, and John Skeel, an executive producer fromDreamWorks Interactive.) I couldn’t believe how dull the scene was. At CGDC all the parties were open and everybody hung out. At E3 all the parties were closed and if you weren’t a celebrity, get lost.
Not that we didn’t make the time for some entertainment. Dave and I had fun just wandering around the exhibit halls dissing stuff. And on the last night we were in LA I met up with James Kucera, Mike (another Mike, not MacDonald), and John Skeel, who was James’ ex boss. James and Mike insisted that we all go to someplace where “there are some girls, man!” Well, James’ idea of someplace where there are some girls turned out to be a low-grade strip club on Pico that we had to drive to. There was no actual nudity, and much actual buying of expensive drinks. None of it bothered me though, because Skeel picked up the tab for everything. Skeel also managed to essentially get one of the girls to beg him for a date. I guess when everyone around you wants to be in showbiz and you’re the only guy in the room who lunches with Spielberg, the kids just go crazy. I’m essentially as guilty as the girls are. I don’t normally like these kinds of joints, but when you have an opportunity to hang with someone who you may go clawing to for a job someday, you take it. Anyway, we had a good, if slightly cheesy time. It was a suitable evening of decadence before returning to the puritanical land of Singapore.
Back to Singapore
And so E3 came to an end after three days of hype, and we returned to the land from whence we had come. We flew out of Los Angeles, so we had the pleasure of connecting through Tokyo Narita for the first time. It was unremarkable except that the culmination of my lifelong dream to visit Japan was finally realized in a dull hour and a half stopover during which I bought a coke. Zenith of the international tourism experience, I tell you. All international flights through Japan allow smoking, which sucked. Even though there are only four smoking rows on the airplane that smell does penetrate. My advice (I know, this should have been at the beginning): Never connect through Japan unless absolutely necessary.
We got back to Singapore on the 22nd of May and immediately discovered that there had been some big thinking while we were gone. Joe and Rob had been talking in our absence, and had made the decision to redesign iPower significantly. The late arrival of the computers had out enough pressure on our schedule that we were not confident that we would be able to build iPower to our original design specs. So the decision was made to construct a flexible iPower engine to which we could anchor at least four slightly less ambitious games.
Upon hearing of this plan, Mike became anxious about the fate of the Minion games. After some discussion he, Joe and Paul decided to push Year of the Rat back a year, targeting for Christmas ’98 on the Minion 2 engine. The delay in getting our computers had made it impractical for us to do three games in a year, even with the iPower redesign. Mike and Paul Deisinger were made co-producers of Breaking Glass, and the entire Ratwriting crew was informed that they would be shifting gears. We decided to go with Glassthis year instead of Rat because it is a less avant garde game, that will probably be better received from a new company than Rat would have been. The Rat writers took it pretty well, all things considered. They had put a lot of work into the game, and I think it consoled them to know that the work would still mean something. As a Minion 2 game, it will also be more sophisticated than it would have been this year. Rat development will continue at a very low key. When we informed Chris of this plan, he demonstrated his great concern by telling us “Yeah, whatever,” or words to that effect. We feel much more confident in our ability to produce two good games in a year, rather than three. (Rev: Oh my achin’ head. Two became one became…?)
I returned to Singapore to find, at long last, my audio equipment. I had actually been to the airport the day before we left for E3, when the shipment first arrived in Singapore. I needed to verify that all the equipment was in good condition as some of the packaging had sustained damage during shipping. Everything had been in one piece and, while we were in the States, all the equipment was delivered to our office. I spent a merry two days setting up the studio when I returned. It is cool, but it will be cooler when there is a computer in the middle of it to drive the digital workstation that is the heart of the production suite. In the meantime, it is simply a very good stereo, although the keyboard has been popular with the more musical members of our staff. I look forward to doing more actual production work in there starting next month.
The last couple of weeks have seen new staff come on board and, hopefully, the resolution of the computer crisis. We are still having a good time, and we still have high hopes. It has been an interesting couple of months, though, and there have been times when we have wondered if it is all worthwhile. With the last of our hardware issues dealt with we hope that those black moods have been dispensed with for good. We are in another round of hiring, looking for two more programmers and a systems administrator, but we are closer than we have ever been to full-scale production. Hopefully the next installment will have more notes on making games, and fewer notes on making the company. (Rev: Oh, but then it wouldn’t be any fun.)
Time will tell.
Verification of the Mandarin Babies Theory
In one of my previous reports from Singapore I wrote about the television and print ad campaign encouraging people to have babies. In that report I theorized about why it was so clearly targeted towards the Mandarin Chinese population. Now, possible confirmation from an independent source. Here is an e-mail that my friend Bob sent me:
Date: Mon, 29 Apr 1996 01:23:46 -0400
Subject: The Mandarin Make Babies campaign
>My interpretation of this is that the Mandarin
>birth-rate is lower than the Malaysian or Indian
>birth-rates, and the largely Mandarin government
>of Singapore is concerned that the Mandarin
>population (about 80% of Singaporeans) might
>someday lose its dominance. Consequently,
>it is selectively encouraging families among
Wonder no further! The birth rate of Indian
Singaporeans is moderate; no cause for alarm.
The birth rate for Malaysian Singaporeans is
quite high, for an industrialized country.
The Chinese Singaporean birth rate is below
that of the U.S. general population. These
figures from the Economist (no friend to the
government of Singapore).
A few years ago, I saw a story on public TV
about a singles introduction service run by
the government. Educated Chinese Singaporeans
were encouraged to enlist, and the
advertisements were primarily in
Apparently, Chinese ethnic women were waiting
too long to get married, and getting too
educated to suit their potential suitors.
Chinese ethnic men seemed to prefer younger
women that were less educated — perhaps a
nice Singapore Airlines girl. I remind you
that this program was operated entirely by the
government. There was education offered to help
Chinese professionals get together: dance
classes and conversation classes (*conversation*
classes!?) were among the most popular.
I refer to all of the above in the past tenseonly because I don’t know that the program is
still running. It may well be going strong,
putting young, maladjusted, rich Chinese professionals together. After that, the Make Babies campaign will remind them what marriage
is really for.
A Bad Day for the Cat
As you know if you follow these journals, the cat that Joe found is now permanently residing in Rob and Paul’s apartment. And so it was with much fanfare that the cat came of age (5 months) recently, and we took him down to the vet and had his little berries cut off. Yes, the cat was male after all. We had great hopes that the cat would attain new heights of mellowness once this was done. Oh well, we’ve had our hopes dashed before. The cat is still a little terror. But at least it is a little neutered terror now.
That’s all for this installment! See you next time. -WM