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Anniversaries, anniversaries!

At the turn of the year I browsed my calendar, looking for a good time to visit Sami. I picked the first suitable time and suggested it to Sami. He replied that the time is OK, and also happens to be a day after his birthday. And only then I realized that this year is the 30th anniversary for UnReal World. And a few days before leaving to Sami's it turned out that at the same weekend it will also be 5th anniversary of the Finnish Museum of Games. So here I am, at Sami's place, celebrating all the anniversaries. Today we already went skiing in the woods. Now we are watching a live stream from The Finnish Museum of Games. Next it will be sauna. All the interesting discussions in the video stream sent me reminiscing;

I grew up in a small village in the Eastern Finland. That was time before the computerization, and the culture was different in so many ways. There were no mobile phones. And in our village it was still so that when you picked up the handset of a land-line phone, you heard the voice of a real person asking where you'd like to call - and then they physically connected some plugs and jacks to make your call happen. If you wanted to call to another area of FInland, you had to reserve a time for your call beforehand. The world was just so much slower, and local. When you wished to withdraw cash from your bank account, you visited a bank, handed a small booklet to the clerk who made some marking in the booklet and handed you cash. If you wanted to play a game alone, a deck of cards and solitaire were pretty much the only option available, otherwise it was board games to play together with other people.

I was about 12 years old when our family bought a home computer, a Commodore-64. That opened up a whole new avenue of entertainment and creativity. At first we were playing all the games we could find, but pretty soon my older brother and me wanted to learn how to make games of our own. Before that, if you wanted to make something happen it always required physical activity like sawing and hammering, taping and gluing things together. But with a computer you could just type in code, and see things happen - shiny bright colorful images moving on the screen! And at those times we didn't have a separate thing for a computer monitor, but the computer was plugged to an ordinary TV. An idea of a pre-teen kid being able to control what happens on the TV screen, that was just somehow a total revolution, and we wanted to try what we can do with that newly found power.

So, personally I grew up learning to code. Commodore-64 assembler was so simple that one could master the machine in and out. And at those times it simply didn't occur to us that programming could be something people study for a profession; it was more like punk rock, I mean, there was this feeling that the only way to learn these things was by doing these things. We had a game idea, we started making it, and in the process experimenting to learn how to make this or that (like; implementing parallax scroll, displaying more sprites than the C-64 hardware natively supported, creating a menu system, a 2D tilemap engine). It felt like an exploration, where you just discover new things by actually going there; if you want to know where is the source of this river, you just go upstream to find it. And we did the same with coding; writing code to learn how games are made.

Together with my older brother we were sometimes half-seriously dreaming about publishing our games. But, most of the time we didn't finish the games we were making, for we got new ideas, and wanted to learn something new, and anyhow publishing an indie game wasn't exactly an easy thing to do in a world before internet. Let me say this again; yes, we had computers, but there was no internet. We were reading a physical magazine to read game reviews, and the magazine also had pretty inspiring articles about coding, which helped us to learn new techniques. And, seen purely from my personal perspective, then things changed; my older brother moved away from home, and I kept coding by myself, and together with some of my class-mates. Around the same time I migrated to the PC world (so I kind of a skipped the Amiga-phase, never had one). Then came the dial-in modems, and BBS systems where you could discuss with other people from other villages, towns or cities. This is the time I made friends with Sami, and we started making games together.

At those times we had a number of game projects, Sami's UnReal World was just one of them. And it was still times before having an easy access to the internet, so publishing or distributing indie games was still a lot more local and random than in the world of today. Our games were available for download at the BBS Sami was running, and apparently people also shared them. Yes, the world before the internet - when people exchanged computer games by physically mailing 3.5" diskettes. Well, there are the details, but I'm writing this partially in an attempt to situate us in the larger context;

At the times of Commodore-64 games I think people making the games were just 5 - 10 years older than me and my older brother. Probably most of them didn't have any formal schooling. And some of the big commercial games were made by a single person, or by a small team. So, the distance between a lone indie coder and the commercial titles wasn't that big - sometimes it was mostly just a question of distribution; how to access the resources to sell games in a world where games were marketed as physical things sold in physical stores? I remember that there was this feeling that we kind of a have the same skill levels as some of the professionals working in the industry, but we just lacked the access to distribution, and that also lowered our motivation to finish a project. So we (me and my older brother) were just outsiders, coding for the mere fun of it.

Then, in the times of PCs and BBSes there actually was a way of distribution. Not yet the global market of the internet, but still a way to publish something other people can find. So, when I started coding together with Sami there was a lot more motivation to code complete projects, to publish fully playable games. But the core of the ethos remained the same; we were mostly coding for the fun of it, and for the sake of curiosity; wanting to learn how games are made. How to do line-of-sight? A random level generator for a dungeon-crawler? What if the combat system was implemented this way? The best way to find out was to go hands-on coding. Well, but around those times the gap between big commercial productions and indie coders started to grow. Just when we started to have some access to distribution, we also saw big game studios hiring a number of professionals to produce games which would've take years to make for a lone indie coder. So we didn't quite see us as "a part of the industry", we were outsiders and not really bothered about it, for making games was fun. And we got some good feedback, especially UnReal World.

Well, in my personal life early adulthood was about all the other stuff, and I didn't find that much time to code. But, because of the positive feedback Sami kept UnReal World alive, continuing the teenage hobby by steadily releasing new upgrades. And the rest, as we now know, is history. Today, when watching the video stream from The Finnish Museum of Games it felt great to know that UnReal World was chosen among the limited number of titles in the museum exhibition. Or, knowing that UnReal World is awarded the Guinness World Record for the longest update support for a computer game - it is cheerful to think how the project now is "a part of the bigger context, a part of the history of the game industry", and yet it started out as a fun hobby project of teenage friends who really didn't consider themselves as "a part of the industry". And I think a lot of that ethos remains today; we celebrate by going skiing in the woods, to this day we haven't taken any formal courses in programming, instead of having a marketing budget we just enjoy the fun of the coding.

So, from my own point of view the main question is not our position in the "history of the gaming industry", but the journey from pre-computer times to the world of publishing indie games at internet platforms. Or, slightly related - the mere idea that I can type text on a laptop, and just push a button to publish it for an international audience - that is something I couldn't even dream of when I was 10 or 11. But at that age I already had a type-writer, writing short stories and dreaming about becoming a writer. Well, I don't know if I'm ever going to be a professional writer or not. But I can write for the fun of it, having a small international audience, which is nice. Nice, in the sense of "being a lot more than I ever dreamed of". Well, it is the 30th anniversary for UnReal World, it will be Sami's well earned year off from continuous coding, some good time to rest (before slowly pondering the big overall plans, I know him - that is going to happen, but just not yet, first the man needs to recharge his batteries, to let the fresh winter wind refresh his brain.) And I will keep on coding Ancient Savo, hoping that it will see the public release some time the coming spring. In so may ways, things are still essentially the same they were 30 years ago, only that now we have the internet, and some sort of an established footing the history of gaming. So it remains to be seen what the future will bring - the exploration goes on, coding for the fun of learning how to implement this idea?

Skiing in the woods.
Skiing in the woods.
Watching a videostream of the 5th anniversary of The Finnish Museum of Games
Watching a videostream of the 5th anniversary of The Finnish Museum of Games
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