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Interview: Nokia's Scott Foe - A Member Of The  Reset Generation
Interview: Nokia's Scott Foe - A Member Of The Reset Generation Exclusive
July 25, 2008 | By Chris Remo

July 25, 2008 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

After being developed under heavy secrecy with the moniker "Project White Rock" - an allusion to the game's intended addictive qualities - Nokia's flagship mobile title for its reimagined N-Gage mobile platform was unveiled in May as Reset Generation, an action/puzzle game that somehow fuses Tetris, Bomberman, and Super Mario Bros., among others.

The game is the dream project of producer Scott Foe, who has been bandying the idea around since his teen years. It is being produced in conjunction with Helsinki-based RedLynx, developer of Pathway to Glory, one of the genuinely well-received entries in the long-suffering N-Gage's prior incarnation as a fixed hardware device.

As Foe puts it, Reset Generation is "a game about video games," and that description applies not only to its schizophrenic but effective gameplay blend but also to its art and music design, which is sure to inspire waves of 8-bit nostalgia among long-time gamers.

The score was provided by chiptune band 8 Bit Weapon, and the pixel art characters are based on designs by well-known artists such as Dan Paladin, Scott Kurtz, and Feng Zhu.

The game is planned to launch this year for Nokia mobile phones - since the N-Gage platform is now built in to the company's smartphones, as opposed to being a standalone branded device - and for free on PC via the game's website. The two versions will be compatible in the game's four-player online, and will be tracked on the same leaderboards.

Nokia is even hoping gamers will become invested in Reset Generation that they make their own tributes - art assets and the game's soundtrack are being released for free.

Gamasutra sat down with Foe at Nokia's offices for an in-depth discussion about Reset Generation's formation and influences, its development, and - in notable detail - what Foe thinks about Scrum.

What was the genesis of this project? It's unusual for the mobile space in some ways.

Scott Foe: Well, the genesis really goes back to before there was even a mobile space. I mean, I've been thinking about this title since I was seventeen years old. I wasn't even in college yet when I started fantasizing about this. I cannot describe it, I recommend it to everybody, the experience of doing that thing you've been telling yourself you're going to do for so long.

So that being said, people always ask, because the term "producer" is so flexible, “What do you do? What do you do?” I'm kind of like Hannibal from The A-Team. I collect this amazing virtual network of amazingly talented people. We've got the character designers, we've got 8 Bit Weapon, and of course we have RedLynx and these fantastic people, and you know, I love it when a plan comes together.

So, it takes a village. Everything that we have is because everybody contributed and brought their A-game. And so, seeing all of that come together, and all of that cooperation - at the end of the day, companies don't make games. Nokia doesn't make a game. RedLynx doesn't make a game. People make a game. And we've been working with some amazing people. And because of that we have this amazing game.

So that's the short genesis version. The long genesis version is, of course, we are investing money in the N-Gage platform. It's mobile, it's connected. You need something that really flexes the platform, you know, a flagship title which is going to basically show off every feature that the platform has, and even features that the platform doesn't have.

At the same time, it's going to be the lighthouse, you know, the beacon - plant the flag for other people to look at and say, “Wow, mobile gaming isn't just this 64k experience that was in my phone in 2001.” It's now come into its own right as this very special form of entertainment, at home or on the go.

That's a very first-party console publisher mentality - trying to light the way for other developers.

SF: Set the bar. Yeah, and being at a first-party console publisher, or mobile publisher, as it were - a platform - that's definitely the way we went.

How did you end up in this area, having worked on more console type of gaming in the past?

SF: Nokia acquired the Sega Network technology infrastructure in 2003, and we had started a project called Pocket Kingdom, which was the world's first global, mobile, massively multi-player on-line game with Sega at that time, and both I and Pocket Kingdom went over with that acquisition.

And it's been in development for like two and a half years now?

SF: It's been in production for two and a half years... I mean, there was preproduction, and concepting before that, so two and a half years is when we brought the studio into the equation.

That seems pretty considerable for a mobile title. That's not typical, is it?

SF: It's not typical, but then again the things we're doing here... you know, we're running, running, we're way out ahead, and there are rocks in the road, and we only find those by tripping over them.

Earlier today you were speaking about the development structure. How does that work when you have development overseas, you're here, QA is somewhere else, and so on?

SF: Yeah, I like to think, going to our pop/schlock book collection, you always hear that “The World Is Flat.” Well, our tools aren't flat yet, but they are getting flatter.

This project being so distributed all over the world, and having so many moving pieces, because you've got not just a platform and development studio to deal with, you also have operators, and operator networks, and different operator network characteristics, and outsourcing firms, et cetera. This project just wouldn't have been possible a few years back.

But when we got onto the project, you know, you look around the internet, and you see all these off the shelf project management softwares, and different processes that help ease the pains, and you're able to pull those things down and get to working with them, and you're doing things that, again, just weren't possible before. And it's pretty amazing.

You said you're using Scrum.

SF: That's the project development methodology that we've employed. You know, Scrum is - especially with the recent [Game Developer magazine] article from, I believe, last year, “Scrum Rising” - a hot topic in the games industry of late.

People have strong opinions.

SF: People have strong opinions. I definitely have my own strong opinions. It's definitely not a silver bullet, nor is any development methodology. I mean, for example, yes, Scrum leads to greater team communication and cooperation, but if one of your team members is an axe-wielding barbarian, then that might necessarily be a good thing.

But there is certainly, in publishing minds, this kind of idea that Scrum is this evil dragon that - “Oh, if we don't have a waterfall project planned with everything mapped out in detail, then this project is just going to go way overboard, and way over budget.”

I have to say that if you're doing a quality-driven title - so I'm basically separating the universe of game projects into release-date driven, and quality-driven; release-date being, “We gotta get it out by this date,” and quality driven being, “It's gotta be out when it's ready” - for a quality-driven product, using an iterative development model like Scrum is excellent for bringing that home, and for revisiting issues, and making sure that everything is just perfect.

For a release-date driven model, Scrum is excellent because, at the end of every sprint - Scrum project cycles are broken down into a number of sprints - you have something which could conceivably go to quality assurance. So if your due-date has to be - cannot miss! - this certain date, then at the end of every sprint you have something that you can conceivably ship with. Whether that's good or not, that's in debate. But you could theoretically launch it.

From the publishing side, Scrum has very few artifacts, so when you go into a Scrum product development methodology, instead of having, like, oodles of Microsoft Project files and Excel files, and this and that, what you have is the product backlog. People take product elements off the product backlog, the team puts it in the sprint backlog, they complete it, then they give you a sprint report and a playable build. The sprint report and the playable build are probably the best visibility into how the health and well-being of the development project of any of the corporate artifacts that come from the different development methodologies out there.

So, for example, if you're at a publisher, and you really want complete visibility into how is the team doing, what are they accomplishing, you have that sprint backlog and can see, at the end of each sprint, what the team did, what they failed at, and why.

You can't get more clear-cut than that. Having the actual sprint review build, that build of the game, to be able to take around internally and say, “Here, look. This is what the game is about. This is how we're doing. This is how we're going.” There's no better feel for how a project is going, instead of waiting however long for a given milestone build.

From the contractual side? I mean, it requires flex. Say you're doing a release-date driven title, and you're making a contract, and you know the team is operating on a Scrum development methodology. Well, it's easy to say, “This is the due date. These are the payments. And go. These are the number of people you have, and we'll be out on this date.”

Now when you go for a quality driven title, contractually it becomes a bit more sticky, in that you either have to, one, plan on going back to amendments to the contract to say, “Okay, we need two more sprints. We need three more sprints. We need this many more sprints.” Or actually building into the contract the possibility of approving and paying out more sprints on an as-needed basis. And of course, most business development people, and people who write the contracts in the publishing arms of organizations everywhere are probably not familiar with this, and very married to the standard way of doing things, which, of course, causes friction within the publishing organization.

Again, not a silver bullet, but I definitely couldn't see myself using any other development methodology that's in current practice today. I definitely am a huge Scrum fan.

I imagine that kind of heavily iterative method would be particularly suited to a game like this, where you've got fairly disparate gameplay styles that you're bringing together. I suspect that took a lot of trial and error.

SF: Most definitely. I mean, a piece of paper is never fun. Right? First person shooter is easy. Well, easier. You've got a point of reference, you know you're going to need some weapons, and some enemies, and maybe you're going to do an amazing narrative structure, and blow everything else out of the water. But for the most part, you know what you're aiming at.

For something where you are planting the flag, and you are running out ahead of everybody, and there are rocks, it does take time and iteration, and polish to get the jetpack to be as fun as the jetpack could be, or to make sure that the princess-rescuing is satisfying.

One other point, going back to the transparency, I don't think it's really part of the standard Scrum development methodology, although I may be incorrect about this, but one of the things we found really useful on this project is doing our burn-downs by discipline, so you have a burn-down chart which is basically, here's all the work that needs to be done on the project, and you watch it burn-down as elements are taken out of the product backlog.

When you burn-down by discipline, and you see the velocity of how the project is going, you can say, “Oh, we need more artists, or we need more designers, or we need more programmers.” And it becomes more obvious, sooner, although, again, that might already be written down somewhere. I haven't read all the Scrum books. That might be out there.

From a design standpoint, what that was like working with a studio that was overseas? You talked a little bit about the production pipelines...

SF: Oh, I mean, I can probably count on one hand the number of local studios I've ever worked with. It's been that way for me, pretty much. The only advantage is, I speak Japanese, so back in the day I could actually listen in on conversations - whereas now, I don't speak Finnish.

But again, I really have to applaud technologies like activeCollab and Basecamp. Both are fantastic, and the choice between them comes down to whether we want to host our own servers or not. So that's great for keeping coordinated, and of course there were visits out to the studio and workshops, and getting together.

But going back to Scrum, and the transparency that that offered - basically, we knew what was going on at the developer, through the sprint backlog, through the coordination tools like TestTrack or activeCollab. And like I said, the world's flat, the tools are getting flatter.

Also, it really helps to work for Nokia, where I don't pay my phone bill. So anytime I want to, at two a.m., I can give the developer a ring, and we can chat about something. And there were many, many, many phone calls in addition to everything else going on in the project.

Has this project been on schedule? That's probably not the right question since it seems like you didn't have a real date, but what was your initial projection for how long it would take?

SF: Well, I mean, our initial... This is a quality-driven project, so... when it's ready. N-Gage obviously - you know, it's no secret - took a lot longer to come. One SKU for all titles, on mobile, that's the golden egg. To get the golden egg, sometimes you forget, somebody has to fuck the goose. There are feathers flying, and there's squawking, and it's not pretty. But at the end of the day, you know, you get there, you got that golden egg. And five years from now people will be appreciating and enjoying the golden omelette.

So, I suspect when development on this game began, the target for you guys was still the N-Gage hardware platform?

SF: No.

No. You knew this was coming.

SF: From day one, we knew... or from day one of concepting, we knew that it was going to be cross-platform, multi-platform, web widget, N-Gage.

Where do you see mobile gaming going, with respect to platforms?

SF: It depends on if it's the far future, or the near future.

Pick one.

SF: All right. In the far future, there is no-compromise convergence. I mean, eventually, Moore's law catches up with the mobile handsets in the same way that it catches up with the PCs. It won't be about the platform, but the content, and where and how you're enjoying it.

So I could walk into my living room, put my device down, it starts broadcasting to my television. I pick up a wireless controller, and I play it, and it's talking to the device, which is talking to whatever display I'm using, and I play a game. Or maybe I just pick it up and go outside and do the same.

And while this sounds like the stuff of high fantasy, I mean, you can go on the internet right now and see videos of people using game controllers to control a racing game played on a device, and that device has a RCA connection to a television. So it's just like, definitely not the stuff of high fantasy. That being said, futurists and historians always tell a different tale, so I'll go on record as saying that's one possible future.

Okay. So what's the intermediary then?

SF: The intermediary is: bigger, better, grander gaming experiences, more satisfying gaming experiences on the mobile devices. You've got to remember that there are a lot of economies, a lot of places in the world, that are coming online through the mobile devices, never having had a computer. And for them this is the only form of gaming entertainment, or one of the major forms of gaming entertainment that they're going to get. And I think that will definitely shape what comes after.

On that note, it looks like one of the things you guys are trying to do - with the online community, with tapping into the very gamer-centric culture - is maybe trying to introduce more of a sense of the core gaming experience to mobile platforms. A lot of the things you're doing echo online communities people might be familiar with as hardcore gamers.

SF: Well, like any good homage that works on multiple levels, transcendentally, it's layers of the onion, but the key is not to let the love of gaming get in the way of loving the game. Right? Take Kill Bill, for example. You never need to have seen a Bruce Lee movie. You don't need to know she's wearing Bruce Lee's track suit to be able to enjoy Kill Bill. Right?

You never need to have ever played a video game to enjoy Reset Generation. For those of you who have never played a video game, maybe it's just an action/puzzle title that you can't put down. But if you do love gaming, if you are a hardcore gamer, then you're going to find more to love. You're going to see the different levels of love and homage that we have baked into the title.

But it also looks like you're trying to attract a certain type of audience - the core community who cares about things like leaderboards, releasing the art assets to people to make their own things, and so on. Those are things that are more typical for a console or PC developer to do for their games than what a mobile developer would do. Do you agree with that?

SF: Again, content is king. It's all software, man. Consoles are big games, grand experiences, things that people will love, things that will touch lives. The ability to get out there, whether it's on a console, or on a mobile device, it's still entertainment.

Sure, but it seems like you're trying to make a concerted effort to reach a certain type of gamer. Because I think there are a lot of gamers who do play games, but who would not necessarily have that inclination regarding mobile titles.

SF: Ah, yes. Yes. For a great many people, Reset Generation will be either the first indoctrination into mobile gaming, or the first indoctrination into N-Gage, and we are trying to send the message that, “Hey guys, it's not exactly what you might think. Let's clear up these misconceptions here. You can try it for yourself.” And we do, through the PC side, have a volume of users there to get that experience.

Yeah, I was going to bring up the PC. It does seem like sort of a “the first hit is free” kind of thing.

SF: Yeah, it's "Project White Rock," you know? No, I mean, it's no secret, the game is an advertisement for the N-Gage platform. If you look at the widget, it has a little Nokia phone skin around that. We're not shy about that. We want you to see that we've done something really cool, and we want to share it with you.

How did you end up getting all of those well-known concept artists?

SF: Oh, reams and reams of concept art. Oh my God. If I see another picture.

But how did you approach them all? Did you just sort of work up a list?

SF: I had my hit list. I went down the hit list. “Yeah, you like me, I like you, let's work on this.” Yeah, I'll tell you this. Seth Sternberger of 8 Bit Weapon, I hope you're reading. Horrible negotiator.

I write him an email saying, “Hey, I really dig what you guys do. I think we should work together.” Here he comes back saying, “Oh my God, this is a dream come true!” So then it's, "Okay. Let's talk money."

Tipping his hand a little too early there.

SF: Yeah. But he was fantastic to work with. And he did get taken care of, because we really appreciate him, and would like to work together again.

As someone who is, I guess, part of the generation that this game is named after, it is pretty...

It is nice to see a fully-produced, commercially developed game with pixel art and the 8-bit style music, and all that stuff. That's unusual these days.

SF: Well, we wanted to make something that was non-perishable, right? Where other people focus on graphics, we focused on artwork. Like, you look at technology, technology moves quickly. We were talking about Moore's Law earlier. You make a great looking 3D game right now, and it might look like not-so-great twelve, eighteen months from now. You make a fantastic 2D game, and a fantastic 2D game does great forever.

It's an experience that endures, and we didn't just want to do another game. We wanted to do the game for the reset generation. And this was definitely the right way to go about it.

How did you end up with what you have? There are sort of shades of a lot of different genres and games in there, but obviously at a certain point you have to congeal that into one experience.

SF: Oh, it's probably not a very interesting story. It was me with a box of Legos. And then when we brought RedLynx in, they made a couple of key contributions, which has made things incredibly even more fun, like the combos - basically, the combo system came from them. So instead of just laying down blocks, you can actually build impenetrable blocks.

At the end of the day, for me, it's all about physical modeling. And like I said, it was pretty obvious that you couldn't just do this story about games, that it had to be homage in both mechanics and story. So that, that was just kind of intuitive, but how it got to be from, “We're going to do mechanics about games,” to something that is just really fantastically fun mechanics about games. That's blood, sweat, and tears on the part of all the designers and playtesters involved in the title.

I don't know if you've played No More Heroes on the Wii. It's not as explicitly about games as your game is, but it does have a sense of being an homage to classic video gaming, incorporating some of that pixel art and music. I'm curious if you think that that will be something that, as the "reset generation" grows older, becomes an embedded part of the cultural recollection.

SF: Well, I think we'll find homage everywhere, especially as the medium matures to a point where you can actually go into a store and buy a ten-year-old game. Then, you know, how many period-pieces are there? Every major movie studio makes at least one period piece every year.

I definitely think that we'll keep riffing off each other. I mean, video games are like jazz, right? Or like Carlyle Brown once said, “If you like something, steal it.” You're playing a game. “Oh, hey, man, this motion physics, or whatever, this is really smooth. I gotta have that.” Or, “We gotta have bullet time!” I don't know if you remember, but there was a time like that.

Right, when everything had bullet time?

SF: Right! Scott Miller and the Remedy guys had started it off [with Max Payne]. Every producer in the country was going in to their developers, and saying, “Stop everything! Cut level twelve! We need bullet time!”

Yep. What's different about projects like this, though, is that this is less about specifically taking a feature, and more about taking from the cultural texture overall.

SF: This is a cultural celebration, is what it is, right? It's a summary of things that we've seen before, but it also opens the door for new things. And I think the community elements play a lot to that.

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