Changing Worldviews by Mohammed Taher

Last year, before deciding to work with Keiji Yamagishi on World 1-2, I interviewed him. He's among my favorite artists and I wanted to extract more information about his inspiring past.

When I asked him why he quit composing music 10 years ago, he told me the following:

“In the PS2 era, the game industry was moving away from traditional game music and was incorporating orchestra-like sounds into their games. I don't know how to conduct an orchestra, so I felt as if my music was no longer needed.”

The actual quote might differ slightly because I wrote this from memory. I read it over and over, and was confronted with profound sadness to know that this amazing artist had quit doing his favorite thing in the world because he thought no one cared anymore. This upset me, so I then immediately proposed to him that he make one track for my World 1-2 project. He agreed, with some reluctance — he was excited, but he thought he might not do a good job because of the prior abandonment of his skills.

The end result was Memories of T. He made it and refused to take money for it, dedicating it to me and to our newly formed friendship. After hearing it, I couldn't help myself: I told him that we should work together on a solo album. It would bear his real name (not his famous monicker, More Yamasan), and be made with the utmost of care and engineering from my side. We're 8 months into it and what we've nailed down so far is really exciting.


Recently, Keiji Yamagishi worked with Chris Plante of Polygon to make a Tecmo Bowl-esque version of Memories for their new web show Friends List. Check out the tune at Polygon, then head over Soundcloud and download it for free.

In one year, we went from making Keiji feel that his music is worthless to connecting him through his work with all kinds of people (including collaborations with Manami Matsumae, Eirik Suhrke, and Stemage). He's so fueled and energized that not only is he doing all of these inspiring collaborations, but also running Brave Wave together with me and and the rest of my team.

We were able to change his worldview. Not me, but you: folks who care about him and support everything he's doing now. Thank you. Let's change more worldviews and make people feel appreciated for their beautiful, life-changing art.

To quote something I read and can't find now: let's try to raise the stock of harmful, cheerful, inspiring creations.

Launching late by Mohammed Taher

As a person who started a business impulsively and is trying to learn its robes, I keep myself busy by reading about entrepreneurship, marketing and other related topics; mostly to keep myself aware of this new world I catapulted myself into, and also because it's fun. It helps to read from (and about) interesting people who made interesting products, and try to learn from their insightful remarks, successes and mistakes.

Then I read this:

If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.
- Reid Hoffman

And I just disagree. 

1. I’m not embarrassed.

2. I launched late.

3. Best decision I ever made.

By launching World 1-2 late (on May), I was lucky to have met a professional mixing engineer in the process. That was on February, and the desired — and announced — launch was on December~January. This engineer, Marco Guardia, was the driving instrument behind the great sound of the album. Through him I got in contact with Dan Suter, a professional mastering engineer who worked for all major studios you have heard of, and Marco worked with him (by providing tons of insights) hand-in-hand, in his studio, to ensure the sound of the album is as good as it could be. Think of it as finding a best-in-class editor for your book.

I'm glad I launched late. I now have enough knowledge about making albums and facilitating work, but World 1-2 is something I wouldn't remaster or change in any way and possibly forever. It's not perfect, but its potential is well-realized and couldn't be bested after Marco's involvement.

 

Game Gulf by Mohammed Taher

Subject: Arabic gaming remained on pause for nearly two decades due to a popular platform’s demise — and war.

Note: This essay appeared on the 11th issue of The Magazine. Thanks to Marco Arment for giving writers the choice to freely publish their essays anywhere they'd like.

MSX.png

When I was growing up in Kuwait, it — and many neighboring countries — had a strange and wonderful duality: a meeting of Japanese and American brands, media, and technology. Our television channels carried both Captain Tsubasa, a popular soccer anime program, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. My cousins’ dad bought them an NES, while my father brought home Famicom game systems, the Japanese version of Nintendo’s console. (That’s plural: We had three. My three brothers and I wouldn’t share controllers!) Boots or Bath & Body Works? Both!

This Japanese connection explains the dominance for much of the 1980s of the MSX, a Microsoft Japan-led project launched in 1983 to create a standardized computer platform that multiple companies could make and that would be affordable enough for home use. Although IBM introduced its PC in 1981 and copycat compatibles appeared in 1982, those systems were too expensive for many parts of the world and many kinds of users, especially those primarily interested in playing video games.

Unfortunately, MSX turned out to be a dead-end platform, despite its early contributions to the Arabic-speaking world in particular, and it derailed both gamers and the gaming industry in the Middle East for decades. The community is finally starting to revive, in part due to Microsoft’s influence once again.

The sand castle

In the early 1980s, cheap home computers started to sell in the millions of units in both the United States and Europe, and one of their primary uses was playing games. Microsoft Japan’s Kazuhiko Nishi looked to subvert platform lock-in by pushing for an industry-standard computer that could be made in Japan by many different companies and sold directly to consumers and businesses. The MSX included a standard expansion cartridge slot for games and other additions. This would also create a bigger market for Microsoft, which developed MSX-DOS and MSX BASIC.

Built around the existing Spectravideo SV-328 computer, MSX sold in the millions, and versions were produced by Sony and Panasonic as well as by firms outside Japan, including GoldStar (Korea), Philips (The Netherlands), and Spectravideo itself (U.S.). The Kuwait-based Al-Alamiah Electronics got in on the manufacturing action, as well as making software via its Sakhr Software division. Its computer was known as the MSX Sakhr.

But Alamiah wasn’t merely a manufacturer. Mohammed Al Sharekh, the firm’s founder, had received degrees in both America and Egypt, and he brought a Western-style entrepreneurialism to creating an Arabic-language computer culture. He founded Al-Alamiah with 5,000 Kuwaiti dinars (then $20,000) in 1980 to create the first Arabic system, fonts, and programs. He paid special attention to font appearance and technical requirements. They were coded with a proper understanding of the unique requirements for Arabic kerning, ligatures, and other elements. This came during Microsoft’s early years, when MS-DOS lacked any support for Arabic.

Alamiah concentrated on building Arabic educational games and business software on the MSX Sakhr, but avoided games designed purely for entertainment. Its educational software ranged from elementary to high-school levels, and from simple math to electronic circuit design. There was nothing like it on the market in the Middle East. The company introduced the Arabic world to word processing as well.

This range of software and support for Arabic led many companies — and even government ministries — to adopt MSX Sakhr as opposed to other, more expensive computer systems and platforms. While the MSX Sakhr had a limited range of capabilities compared to an IBM PC, a Commodore 64, or other competitors, its limitations were minor enough for most people to ignore in favor of price and language support.

Alamiah kindled a love of video games among many users, even though that wasn’t at all the intent. “Sakhr’s mission was educational. It just happened that we delivered this through an entertainment package,” says Riyadh Al Sharekh, a former marketing manager at Sakhr. “To think that Alamiah’s goal was to solely support video games rather eclipses the efforts and intentions of the company. We saw ourselves as an educational company.” For a few years, this combination worked.

They say misery is a butterfly, and it brought its swarm along in 1990. That year saw the effective end to MSX Sakhr. First, Microsoft abandoned support for the platform around the time it introduced Windows 3.0, its first truly usable version. Second, you might recall that 1990 was the year Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, where Alamiah was headquartered. Although the company also had offices in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the eight-month-long invasion was more than a mere inconvenience; software was delayed, and some employees were poached by other firms.

Gamers didn’t stick around. They migrated to dedicated and more sophisticated systems like NES/Famicom and Sega Master System (SMS). “No one was willing to invest in this educational move as much as Sakhr,” Riyadh says, which brought development on the platform to a halt. Sakhr still exists, but not the one that gamers shared their childhood with. It now makes PCs and corporate software.

The ignorance that lingers

The perception that Islam, the dominant religion in the Middle East, held back video-game development and playing isn’t quite accurate. It is less that there is a cultivated or collective antagonism to gaming than that there are bans or restrictions in particular countries. The National Rifle Association’s campaign against violent video games in the U.S. is far more directed and harsh than anything in my world.

It’s common to find minors in the region playing Call of Duty or Max Payne. Those games are intended for “mature” players, but no laws require shop owners to abide by ESRB age ratings. Rather, certain games face outright bans. Grand Theft Auto, a game popular for its embrace of player agency — to the point where you can visit a nightclub and hook up with a stripper — isn’t allowed here. The game had garnered a bad reputation in the PlayStation 2 days, and word of mouth alerted government higher-ups that it was a “vile” game. Also banned are God of War and Lollipop Chainsaw, games singled out for blasphemy and sexualizing women, respectively. The Darkness II has an entire section played in a brothel, but no one knows about it — and so no one cares about it.

The United Arab Emirates, however, seems unique in evaluating video games — albeit slowly — by playing them to determine whether it has content that authorities deem worthy of a ban. Otherwise, there are no organized campaigns in the region; it’s usually gossip that ends up blacklisting certain games.

A game could even be blocked just because its cover shows, say, a woman with oversized breasts — even if the game’s content has nothing religiously debatable and doesn’t depict women the way the cover does. In short, it’s selective: Germany and other European countries really hate sex and violence, while the Middle East really hates sex and blasphemy.

“I certainly don’t plan to let complicated cultural obstacles get in the way of what I want to achieve in life,” says independent musician Essam Al Ghamdi of Saudi Arabia. “Life is short. Why not take a chance now and then?” Essam quit his job in the oil industry, and is focusing on his own musical career, but he also recently released Simudroids, a Flash game he designed and which his friends programmed. It garnered a small cult following.

A sun that begs to shine

We’ve finally seen positive signs for gamers and developers in the last five years. Microsoft’s Xbox Live and Sony’s PlayStation Network both launched in the Middle East with a staggeringly high number of subscribers, and enabled users to purchase content with their locally issued credit cards. Electronic Arts’ FIFA 13 was released with Arabic localization (some of the best-known commentators in the region offering play-by-play) and was greeted with praise. It far outsold the company’s expectations.

Arab development teams, like Dubai’s After Work Games, are starting to emerge, and we’ve even started hosting our own expos, such as TGXPO and DWGE. These are all clear indications that the market has reawakened and that there’s a renewed interest in chasing the dream.

“During the MSX days, the ambition of Arab-developed games was on par with those from the Japanese, and that gave us a competitive edge,” Abdullah Hamed tells me. For some years now, he has been managing Game Tako, an attempt to nurture a friendly indie-development scene and build awareness for creating content rather than just consuming. “What has happened with Sakhr is a catastrophe; it created a gap of experience (or lack thereof) that had lasted for over 20 years. This is starting to change with the advent of the Internet, and we have been playing catch-up for some time now.”

The Jordan-based Arab Advisors Group noted almost a year ago that the number of online games available in Arabic grew from one in 2007 to 135 by late 2011. The number has climbed since then, spurred by a rapid uptake in Internet access. As of early 2012, nearly 30% of the 350 million people (about 100 million) in the Arab world had Internet access, a tripling over five years. The number of users is predicted to climb nearly 50% to 150 million by 2015.

We all hope that this awkward phase will pass quickly, that we will start seeing more compelling games in the market, and that more professional teams from the community will be formed. We hit rock bottom and acknowledged it. Nearly 60 million people in our community are under 25. The market for games, especially homegrown ones, seems poised to skyrocket. There’s nowhere to go but up.

subaku by Mohammed Taher

subaku is a simple puzzle game by Eric Koziol for iOS. We've been working together for the past couple of weeks on a cool new update which adds — you guessed right — music! While the game didn't have any music in it, I didn't necessarily see that as lacking: Eric designed subaku so that the only thing you need to hear is the notes you tap on while playing the game. You get numbers on the screen, from 1 to 7, and each note descends or ascends in response to what you tap.

I approached Eric suggesting that we work together to add meaningful music to the game; he thought the notion was good and we went from there. The goal was to create music that adds to the experience, even though the lack of music was by design. We juggled with a few ideas before arriving at the one we settled on: sound that evolves with time.

The game has two modes: Puzzle and Endless. In Puzzle Mode, you solve puzzles and slowly move your way up to more complicated ones. In this mode, you'll always spend your time thinking, so you're only going to hear one music track. It won't change, and it's there to simply amplify the ambiance of the experience. So far, nothing too out of the ordinary.

Enter Endless Mode.

The goal in this mode is contrary to the aforementioned one: instead of trying to make all the numbers vanish (emptying the board and therefore winning the puzzle) your goal here is to sustain the numbers and try to let the board stay alive for as long as you can. And here you'll notice our trick. The music will evolve as you spend more time on the board and will gradually become faster. Think Super Mario World: when you ride Yoshi, the music instantly changes to reflect the mood (and intensity) of the situation. Hop off, and the music is back to normal. No fading in or out; it's a seamless transition and sounds good to the ear. What we implemented here is similar, and adds a lot to the experience.

Eirik Suhrke, by Jeriaska

Eirik Suhrke, by Jeriaska

We worked with Eirik Suhrke to carry out the music direction we wanted for the game. You may know Suhrke from games like Spelunky, Super Crate Box, and recently Ridiculous Fishing. In working with Suhrke on the various Koopa Soundworks projects, I was impressed by his ability to come up with new tunes on demand: I'd tell him the mood — as vague as that may sound to you right now — and he'd carry out the request splendidly. With subaku it wasn't any different, and Suhrke's flair is apparent despite the mellow nature of the music. The end result is certainly pleasing. Tell us what you think.

I'll shamelessly ask you to buy the game in support of Eric Koziol and his fine art. Power to the indies.

(Game designers: in case you're wondering, I'm available to hire for your game as a Music Assistant. I come with a bundle of talented musicians. Get in touch.)

“Super Music Bros.” by Mohammed Taher

I had a pleasant time with Andrew Webster from The Verge talking about World 1-2 and Koopa Soundworks.

A few friends wondered about this:

Taher says he has so much material, in fact, that he'll be putting out a second compilation later this summer.

As Andrew reports in the article, World 1-2 started as a small EP. However, the transition to a 20-track album didn't happen immediately — I wanted to make a huge album with up to 40 tracks first. I kept adding more material and hiring additional artists until I realized it was a terrible idea. Who wants to listen to a 40-track album? Most people simply lack such capacity; we — at least I — don't have the patience to stomach that much content. It took a lot of time for M83's “Hurry Up” to click with me, and that's a 22-track album. So I made a relatively smaller album in comparison, which is what we have now in the form of World 1-2, and I plan to make the followup (tentatively titled Encore) even smaller. I actually have more shelved tracks even when excluding Encore.

It's important we remind ourselves to never make anything just for the sake of making it. "40-track album for $10!" sounds marketable and catchy, but is it really engrossing? In most cases, no, and I have a hard time believing anyone would be able to make it so. Even if all the tracks are enjoyable, it simply won't sink in. It'll be that huge album I'll revisit thoroughly one day instead of that cool album I had fun listening to.

One lesson I learned from the making of World 1-2 is to always, always, always be receptive to change.

The next album, Encore, is shaping up quite nicely. I'm still refining hard edges here and there, but what we have so far is satisfying. Yes, it has a Mega Man remix — and from a (newly formed) jazz band, helmed by Andi Bissig! But let's not get ahead of ourselves: World 1-2 is coming in less than a week, and I'm looking forward to that! May is going to be an exciting month.