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Iconic Experiences

The casino so nice they named it twice.

Over the weekend I had the amazing opportunity to take a small vacation in Las Vegas - capital of sin! Of course, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas - so I'm not going to talk about what we did there (although it does mark the first time I was offered "party favors" by random guys on a bridge outside a castle at 3 in the morning). Instead, I'm going to talk about Vegas itself - and how its entertainment direction is something we can learn from.

I'm often asked to design new interactive experiences for clients and for Cerulean Games. Each individual experience has its own unique design challenges and hurdles, though there are always a stack of commonalities. Part of being able to design a solid product or experience is recognizing these commonalities and making use of them. I mean, these are commonalities that were put in place by masters of experience such as Walt Disney himself. Las Vegas makes amazing use of these commonalities at every opportunity. Just like in games, Vegas attractions want to keep you immersed for as long as possible, and they have many little tricks for doing so. Two main ones they use are making the casino floors intentional mazes, and by making sure there are no windows or clocks anywhere. While those two examples don't translate incredibly well to other interactive experiences, what does translate well are the use of immersion and whinnies.

Whinnies are a lesser known design experience created by Walt Disney (and to be perfectly honest I may be misspelling it, but work with me here - finding info online about whinnies is tough - but I promise you I'm not talking about no Pooh bear!). The general idea of a whinny is something that the viewer sees the moment they begin their experience, which acts as an anchor to mentally position the viewer into the world they are about to experience, and is also something that represents the experience enough that it can be used as a pure iconic piece of imagery for the experience. In Disney, this would be Spaceship Earth inside EPCOT, or Cinderella's Castle in the Magic Kingdom. You enter the park and right there in all its glory is a massive structure, which when you see it - you know you're there.

Las Vegas makes use of the whinny concept in a rather different but fun way. Their massive hotels and casinos can be seen from a distance, and each one is unique. Their experience starts long before you are even on the property for that individual hotel - therefore, their whinny is their building itself. Check out the following image, which is the outside of the hotel / casino New York New York.

You can see those buildings from quite a distance, and they are the only buildings around which look like that. They represent New York, they feel like New York - you see them, and you know - you're going to New York. The lights, the sounds, the smells. Wait, the smells? Yes - as soon as you walk into New York New York, you immediately smell apples. I kid you not - every hotel / casino in Vegas seems to have a unique scent pumping out near the doors. This is actually another Disney trick - as soon as you walk into the Magic Kingdom, there are popcorn vendors. You can smell their popcorn as you enter the park - which in Walt's mind, the gates are the curtains of a show, and popcorn is what you always smell at a show. In fact, the gates represent the show so much that you can't even see the whinny until you pass through the gates - or in other terms, until the curtains have risen.

Another Vegas hotel / casino is the Egyptian themed Luxor. It's no different in its use of whinnies. Most of us are familiar with the massive beam of light that blasts out the top of the pyramid and into the cloud layer of the sky above. That thing can be seen from 4 miles away - no joke. Another that the Luxor uses is as soon as you get off the monorail.

Yup - get off the monorail, and you immediately get Sphynx in your face! When you see that thing, it's pretty clear - you're in Egypt... well, Vegas' version of Egypt at least.

Ok... so how does all of this pertain to creating interactive experiences for... I dunno, video games? In many ways, actually. Just like those Disney parks and Vegas experiences, some of the most iconic moments in video games are presented with the same types of whinnies. One of my favorites was in Portal 2. Throughout much of the games' advertising, we're presented with GLaDos' control room, overrun by plants and vines - and right in the middle, the broken body of the malevolent computer herself. You reach that room about 20 minutes into the actual game - and it is a defining experience for the entire game. I won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't played, but once you go through that room and experience what happens, you are in the right mindset for the next 10 - 20 hours of gameplay.

Concept art of Chell entering the central AI chamber, with the broken, GLaDos. Image copyright Valve.

Modern 3D games of course aren't the only ones to have whinnies. Let's go back... way back, to when the most complicated graphics processor was your brain itself. I'm talking about text adventures. Just like a book, they can paint a picture as vivd and vast as they desired, all without a single piece of graphics. And one of the most memorable and amazing text adventure experiences was a little game called Zork.

All hail the white mailbox!

Zork was a game where the player entered a forgotten underground kingdom, which exists beneath our very feet. In many ways the game used the 'hollow Earth' theory, which simply states we live on the surface while the center of the world has its own world. In Zork, this world even has its own sky, people, and adventures. The image above is actually the very first screen you see upon starting the game. The white mailbox has become a staple among gamers everywhere - yet it is not the whinny I'm speaking of. I'm talking about that boarded front door. You're in front of what is almost certainly a long since forgotten house, filled with mysteries and adventures - just like the underground kingdom of Zork itself. Ok, I may be stretching that a little - however Infocom - the creators of the Zork games - even used the white mailbox and boarded up house as iconic imagery in future games and marketing. So I may not be so crazy after all.

Memorable interactive experiences are what keeps people coming for more. Cirque du Soleil knows this. Disney knows this. The hotels and casinos in Vegas knows this. And deep inside, so do you - you can't create a boring experience and expect someone to come back to it, or to you. But when you create a product, put it through its testing, and through hard work and iteration come up with something where the eyes of your testers light up with delight every time they enter your world... you know you've got something great.

Rediscovering Passion

Discovering what exactly you wish to do in life can be an uphill battle while carrying a dead gazelle with a heard of starved lions charging in your wake. We are here for a period of time that can feel long, yet can be ever so short. Discovering that spark of what we enjoy doing for the rest of the world during that short time upon it is life changing and amazing.

For my first article on the revitalized Cerulean Games site, I'm going to talk about passion and revitalization - a pertinent item that without, this site and this article would not exist. For me, this is an article that is both incredibly difficult to write, and equally empowering to finally have the strength to move forward and discuss.

Last year, I took Cerulean Games down the path of attempting to build a freemium game for an existing large community. The company was steered to put almost everything it had into building the demos, examples, a Kickstarter campaign, and working with the existing community to learn what they wanted and work to make to real. People were happy with what we did - but many showed a side of humans that can only be described as horrible. Many people seemed to believe I was personally attempting to scam them, or harm them in some way. It truly seemed like they did not want the game to be made, and became livid at my company and myself for wanting to build the game. So they went after me. They went after my wife. They went after my friends. They went after my business. They even discovered potential interested investors for the game and went after them. We were harassed and torn apart. We were called scammers, filth, cheats - it was even insinuated that Cerulean Games is not an actual game studio, or even a real company - something that can be quickly rectified by simply downloading a game we have produced, or looking us up at the Colorado Chamber of Commerce.

In the end, what I experienced wasn't even 10% of the horrors that individuals such as Zoe Quinn and Phil Fish have had to endure - but for me, it was a lot. I felt as if I had dedicated months of my life to bring to about a game that this large community wanted. And while many cheered us on and supported our efforts - many also attacked us with extreme prejudice, all because we truly wanted to build the game they desired. I was confused, and hurt. I understood internet trolls - you just ignore them and keep going. I've been in the game industry long enough to know all too well what the trolls do - they verbally attack developers, send death threats, threaten to rape them or "visit their children after school" (all actual threats from gamers towards individuals in the industry). I knew it would happen to me - but when it finally did, I wasn't ready, and I never once expected it from an audience of primarily middle aged women. 

However that is exactly who attacked me. And my wife. My friends... They wanted to quite literally harm me - and they did. They harmed my company. They harmed my professional name. My wife even temporarily shut down her own company due to the harassment towards her and her company. And these trolls did it with the glee of the starved lions finally catching the runner with the gazelle. As the troll lions (trions?) metaphorically pinned me to the ground, all I could wonder was... Why? I put everything I had into initiating the construction of what they wanted. The prize for them was right there - it was everything they asked for and so much more. Problem is, they didn't want to consume the gazelle. They wanted to tear into me. And they ate me to the bone, and slurped out the cartilage - and then went after people close to me.

We didn't have the money to produce it - the Kickstarter did not reach its funding goal (and we were told we have to 'give back the money we stole from people via Kickstarter - a rank misunderstanding of how Kickstarter even functions). Without Kickstarter, and with our investors all backing out due to the trolls going after them, the game was cancelled. For a while I still wanted to produce it, but the pain was still there. So I shut down. Completely. My passion for developing video games disappeared. My passion for creating entertainment became extinct. My desire to even create disappeared...  I stopped writing, I stopped making, I even stopped cooking food. I wallowed into a deep depression, shut down the Cerulean Games website, disconnected my personaly Facebook account, and for all intents and purposes - left the games industry. I planned to wrap up my couple of contract projects and never look back. Even took a job building application software.

That was over a year ago.

In the months that followed I started seeing a counselor to help with my depression, and to help me rediscover what I lost. It had been a journey... Rediscovering emotions for one, as I had apparently shut them off as a defense mechanism. You know what it's like to hear that people have died and you are completely indifferent to it?  People whom you knew and cared about. You don't cry. You don't mourn. You just continue... And that does not work.

Around the beginning of 2014, my friend Megan Fox of Glass Bottom Games started chatting with me about porting their game Hot Tin Roof to mobile. My desire and interest to do so was feigned at best. I truly wanted to - but my indifference and lack of passion for games made me agree simply to help a friend. Then she started talking to me about updating their other game, Jones on Fire. It needed some new mechanics and ideas - and as I pitched ideas to her, it quickly turned into a full fledged sequel. And I was enjoying myself. Laughing while writing out the concept, smiling ear to ear at the thoughts of the gameplay. It was something I hadn't felt in over a year. Something was stirring inside once again...

Then came the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX). The event is in early September, but Megan started planning for it around June of 2014. And she asked if I would like to help demo Hot Tin Roof. In the months that followed I found myself thinking more about game design again. That little stirring spark inside was growing. I was thinking of and starting to design ideas I hadn't thought of in a long while. Started thinking about writing again, started cooking again, started to ever so slowly become the person I lost.

Finally we arrive at PAX, and we are demoing Hot Tin Roof. I'm watching people play - not just this game, but watching them playing all the games. The smiles on their faces, the cries of agony when the game defeats them, the... absolute fun everyone is having. 

I missed that. 

I missed creating things that brought people joy. Since last year, I had been mired in such misery brought upon me by people who hated me for no real reason that I was blinded to see the very thing I wanted to do in my life - entertain and bring joy to others through interactive entertainment.

It has been more than a year since my pain began. But now, standing here writing this on my iPhone while on the PAX floor, I am ready...

My name is Dave Calabrese, and I was bullied by a community of people. I was unable to take the pain. But I am ready to return to doing what I love. And while there will always be people out there who find a reason to hate me, to hate others, and to dedicate themselves to hurting them - deep inside, those people are hurting far more than they could ever hurt me.

I'm back. 

Edit: I also want to thank the people in my life who really supported me through those darker times and helped me to get back to wanting to create and be happy. My wife, who was there through all of it and continues to be there for me. Megan Fox, whom without helping me back into games I probably would now be making some random .NET application software nobody would ever hear about. My family, who always wanted the best for me. And my friends, whom all held me emotionally and worried about me. Thank you, all of you. Now let's make some games!

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