Russian Footprint in the Scandinavian Game Saga

Recently, I accidentally stumbled upon a Finnish book entitled Finnish Video Games: History and Catalog, written by journalist Juho Kuorikoski and published in 2015. On page 93 in the chapter “Mobile Studios Strike Back” I came across an interesting section that talked about the “Russian trace” in at least two Scandinavian projects, in Swedish and Finnish:

“One of the Finnish pioneers in the mobile gaming industry is Mikko Honkakorpi. He worked for Akumiitti (a mobile content provider) in the early 2000s. “At that time, we started learning Japanese Java phones. Siemens brought the first such devices to Europe, and Sumea began to develop mobile games. “I and several other employees realized that this is an opportunity we should not miss.”

According to Honkakorpi, Sumea and Akumiitti were the very first mobile game providers in Europe, while the rest were based in Japan. “The mobile gaming business has become our mission. Ringtones and logos were hot commodities at the time. We had customers all over Europe, so the sales network was already prepared. ”
One of our sales representatives sold a package of thirty games to one of the operators, Honkakorpi says. “Somehow I got an email saying that we need about twenty games - what will we do?”

Only a handful of people in Finland knew how to write mobile games and they were all already hired by Sumea. So Akumiitti turned her eyes to the eastern neighbor. “One Swedish company called Game Federation already had experience developing games for the Palm Pilot. To do this, they hired Russian developers. After small “excavations”, we got the contacts of these developers and were able to bring them together in a small game studio in St. Petersburg, which I headed. I still don’t know a word in Russian, ”said Honcacorpi with a smile.

The production process has started. Russian developers sought to show their skills. “At the first business meeting, we already had paper sketches of dozens of games for three or four game engines.”

Time was running out. “We had to pass all the games in a few months. As an additional challenge, none of us had ever seen a device for which development was to be carried out. ”

Siemens needed high-quality content to launch its new Java phone in Central Europe. “The games were finished on schedule and some of them were very good. Since then, I have used this episode as a good teaching example when consulting on project management. We had all the components for a complete disaster. It took a pretty decent bit of luck. ”
Since I had some relation to these projects, I decided to clarify and supplement the story of a famous Finnish specialist a bit, telling how the projects looked at the level of execution. I will start in order and in this post I will try to describe the Swedish project mentioned in the Finnish book.

Swedish project for Game Federation

In 2001, the Swedish company Game Federation AB (their website www.gamefederation.comcurrently available only through online archives) I decided to present my new technology for organizing cross-platform gaming sessions under the name GEX and not somewhere else, but at the E3 2001 world exhibition. What came into my hands in the form of platform documentation is rather It looked like a presentation slide and a couple of Java interfaces that were supposed to be implemented. As a demonstration, we chose the mobile platform J2ME (as the base device of the Motorola A008, and not the Palm Pilot as described in the book, although of course they can sometimes be confused) and an ordinary PC running Windows. The Swedes had a staffed team of back-end developers, of those with whom I actively communicated there were two - Christian Anderson (Christian Andersson) and Markus Persson (Markus Persson, yes this is the one who later became known around the world as Notch).

While everything was seized from the server side, there were clearly not enough qualified hands on the mobile and desktop lines and they began to look for outsourcers, including in Russia, finding them in the face of the recently (by that time) Rus company organized in St. Petersburg -Soft (the organizer was Alexander Dymov, who had recently returned from Ireland, mainly busy with the start of the St. Petersburg office of ORC Software). As a negotiator for the Russians, the Swedes sent Mark Pinan, an Australian, to discuss the details of the project with Rus-Soft leadership (his favorite exclamation was brilliant!). At that time, I worked for the St. Petersburg branch of the German company Concept-Software GmbH, where we were leisurely engaged in Java projects and Java applet games, which played a role in Alexander’s decision to invite me to the role of Java developer in the “Swedish project”. He also found Sergey Kuligin, an experienced programmer in C ++ game development, and two very cool game artists with vast experience - Vladimir Chernysh and Dmitry Kholodov.

Before E3 2001, it was about three months and the choice of which game we will implement, the Swedes laid on us, their task was to disassemble the server part, which was still raw. The experienced part of the team was a little indignant at such a short time, but I belonged to a not very experienced part and I was rather surprised by the thought that three months would not be enough. In the end, it was decided to “gash” the good old “Sea Battle” (in English they called “Battle ships”) since the game was both simple, turn-based, accessible to implementation simultaneously on a weak mobile device and on a powerful desktop and had the opportunity to have different level of entertainment depending on the platform. Work began in early March and should have been completed before mid-May, as E3 2001 was held May 16-18, 2001.

My part of the work was complicated not only by the fact that I had no experience with the new J2ME technology at that time, but also by the fact that the target mobile device (which had the new breakthrough GPRS technology for packet data at that time) was in a single copy and was in the Motorola laboratory in Stockholm (Sweden), so all testing on a real device took place in the form of periodic visits to the laboratory by members of the Swedish team and a run on the experimental device of program codes received from Russia. At that time, Sun already published its J2ME WTK with the ability to emulate, so I made a profile for it that in my opinion mimicked the A008 and developed “by eye” in emulation mode.

With the desktop version, everything was more fun and the artists developed an amazing game concept that, despite the two-dimensionality, was launched under DirectX3D using various effects and the entire software part was written in C ++ accordingly. There was also a small curious staffing moment on the project. Once, when I arrived at the office, I met a student I didn’t know about whose participation I had never heard of before (Alexander Dymov also looked surprised when he found out about a new member of the team). He worked on the C ++ part of the PC version. It turned out that this is Sergei Kuligin, being simultaneously a teacher at one of the St. Petersburg universities, was involved in the work of one of his students. Looking ahead, I must say that the experiment involving student work turned out to be conditionally successful. The student had little experience in the gaming field, and Sergei still had to finish a lot himself. Sometimes it was funny to see artists explaining to the student how to arrange ship sprites on the playing field so that they would not overlap each other.

Since the back-end part was developed in Java with its client API, we decided to make the communication part of the PC version also in Java, for which we wrote a network module connecting to C ++ code via JNI (Java Native Interface). We all did not hesitate to generate ideas related to the game, in particular from my proposed creative solutions for the desktop, our artists took the idea to draw pop-ups and dead fish swaying on the waves in the place of misses. The soundtrack of the game was made by the sound engineer who found Vladimir Chernysh (I don’t remember his name, because I came across him only once or twice), the melody of the famous song about the cruiser “Varyag” was inserted as a splash theme.

In general, the project went smoothly and everything was done on time and without any overloads (I even had enough from time to time to play in the office on a powerful computer the recently released demo version of Operation Flashpoint), the Swedes gradually "licked" their server part, running it on a real application, and we were looking for ways to connect the game process through their service and channels available for mobile devices. As the transport protocol, we chose the most neutral and universal of the available ones - the HTTP protocol. It's funny, but in my search for how to organize data transfer, I unexpectedly “rediscovered” what was already invented elsewhere and was called web application model Comet, i.e. An HTTP connection operates in a mode where the web server appends data to the channel without a preliminary request. I had no idea what kind of “advanced technology” I was using, however, our Swedes did as well, then Marcus Persson jokingly told me that “we will steal your idea”. Everything related to the mobile application, including its design, lay entirely on me, so I had to partially draw the pixel graphics myself (the benefit was experience with the ZX-Spectrum and BK-0010), and I adapted the “close-ups” in the form of a screensaver and final pictures with PC version.

The finished product was presented to the customer, everything was fine, but then an unexpected use case came up that we did not think about (and we forgot to tell about it at the beginning of the work). The customer wanted to present a gaming platform with a full cycle display, i.e. starting with the demo download of the desktop client part on the PC, and it took about 160 megabytes (!) with us (I recall that in the yard in 2001 and 40 megabytes it was very important for those communication channels). In general, the artists began to thin out the game animation (which was initially made simply monstrously smooth) and the client PC size was brought up to 60 megabytes, which was more or less acceptable for the presentation. We did not have time for optimization and data packaging (and such work would simultaneously raise the risks of product availability),

Suddenly, another task from the customer fell on me. It occurred to him at some point that it would be nice to show not only a specially written demo client, but also the use of a GEX platform with some already known game. Vladimir Chernysh and Sergey Kuligin had wide connections among St. Petersburg igrodelov, and we began to contact various gaming studios. At first there was an unsuccessful contact with CREAT Studios, but then we successfully went to the Fireglow studio which at that time was making the famous game "Sudden Strike". I (as the person responsible for the network part) was loaded into a car and sent to Vladimir Chernysh for a conversation. This studio was located in some large St. Petersburg apartment in the old fund and it looked as if they had fallen on some kind of "raspberry", a guy of a gangster kind opened to us, there were empty bottles on the floor, and I was talking with programmers, one of whom had hearing problems. We were shown a version of the game under development and given a demo version for adaptation, although the developers were not very happy with the additional work and said, “Why do we need your game platform if everything works fine with us through DirectPlay!” In the end, we managed to find a common solution that suits everyone, so the Swedes got another demo for their technology.

According to the Swedes, the presentation at E3 2001 was brilliant and they were able to arouse market interest in their platform. After this project, I no longer had contacts with this company, but sometimes I opened their website to see how their affairs were going. The game “Battle ships” became a demo for their SDK, but then they came across the risks of claims from the owners of a similar brand and the name “Battle ships” on the screensaver was clumsily covered up and replaced with another. After a couple of years, their server technology was generally bought by someone and went into closed mode, and I no longer saw information about it in open sources. Vladimir Chernysh had ideas on organizing a gaming company under the roof of Rus-Soft, but as I heard, after that he began to play an important role in the gaming company Saber Interactive. The Swedish project was limited in time and all participants successfully dispersed upon its completion. I have never seen a mobile version of the game “live” on an “iron” device, only once a few photos flashed in one of the Swedish electronic magazines devoted to mobile technologies.

In the sequel, I will describe a project related to a Finnish company.

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