Serious Cro

Wait… Clowns? I’m shooting clowns? Is this a joke? Clowns – throwing explosive pies, no less.

And that martial arts master! He’s so intensely, graphomorphologically screwed up I’m about to lose my lunch. Wait wait wait! There’s about two dozen more of him, ewwwwwgh! Crap, a whole batallion of screwed-up senseis with Godzillan megaclaws, leading armies of chicken-leg robots, floating tyrannosaurus heads, and zombie stockbrokers with Italian accents. You gotta be kidding!

I’m supposed to ride around in a spiked hamsterball and fight these weirdies with my circular saw, my six-barreled shotgun, and … a parrot? The Klodovik bird flies up and drops a bomb on them? You’re putting me on, right?

And this game was made in Croatia?

Okay, now I know this is a joke.

But Seriously, Sam…
Serious Sam 2, out this month from Take Two Interactive’s 2K Games, is the sequel to Croteam‘s breakthrough 2001 first-person shooter Serious Sam: The First Encounter and its other half, Serious Sam: The Second Encounter (2002). In each game the appeal is straightforward:

  1. Vast bright colorful wide-open levels, filled with
  2. Huge stampeding hordes of onrushing enemies – nonono, much larger hordes than you’re thinking – which you
  3. Killkillkillkillkill crazy-fast-frantic until spittle flies from the corners of your mouth.

The Serious Sam experience is superheterodyned mayhem start to finish, pure as a Mondrian painting. There are porn flicks with stronger storylines: You’re Sam “Serious” Stone, a soldier sent to ancient Egypt from Earth’s future to forestall invasion by the evil alien overlord Notorious Mental. It hardly sounds promising, yet when Croteam’s early Technology Test hit the Web in June 2000, you could hear the heads of jaded Quake III deathmatch assassins whirring around on their necks like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Their jaws gaped, their fingers twitched spastically, and as one they all said, “Kiiiiick ASS! This is how I felt the first time I played DOOM!”

Comparisons to DOOM led the Serious Sam reviews. With over 2,100 first-person shooters published since DOOM in 1993, it’s remarkable (if that’s the word) how few we consider innovative today: Descent, Marathon, Dark Forces, Quake, 007 Goldeneye, Unreal, System Shock, Half-Life, Starsiege: Tribes, Rainbow Six, Counter-Strike, Thief, Soldier of Fortune, Deus Ex, Halo, Half-Life 2, arguably No One Lives Forever and Jedi Outcast, and right now you’re screaming five or six more titles this list leaves out. Call it two dozen real innovations in 2,100 tries. Sheesh.

No one tried hard to argue Serious Sam was innovative, except in its spacious levels and budget $20 price. Why did it strike so many players as fresh? It. Was. Fun. What a concept.

But … Croatia?

Serious History
Croteam makes a cameo in Serious Sam: The First Encounter. On the first level (Hatshepsut) you can rescue ten big-headed staffers from captivity. Then they follow you around like geese, only to die under withering Bio-Mechanoid gunfire.

Though Croteam is based in Zagreb, its history is interesting in that it’s completely ordinary:

1993: Six longtime friends form Croteam and create a Sokoban computer game for the Amiga. Their next game, released the same year, is Football Glory for PC and Amiga, a knockoff of Sensible Soccer. Sensible Software threatens legal action, so Croteam ceases development; they release Football Glory as freeware in 1998.

1995: Save The Earth, a children’s game based on a Croatian TV series (Amiga 4000).

1996: 5-A-Side Soccer, an indoor version of Football Glory for the Amiga, which by then had already ceased production.

With this history, Croteam could be any small American studio, if you switch out “soccer” with “American football” and “Amiga” with “dead platform of your choice.” And have the legal threats coming from Electronic Arts.

With no good prospects, Croteam resolved to break into the PC gaming business by creating the game they themselves would want to play, an action shooter with bright, open spaces and tons of onscreen enemies. Artist Dinko Pavicic recalled on his home page, “At that time we didn’t have publisher, money – nothing. That was the golden age when we were working in rented flat on computers that our mamas bought.”

Because they couldn’t afford to license an existing engine, Croteam had to write one themselves – the “Serious Engine.” Its first public Technology Test in 2000 impressed Erik Wolpaw of the acidulous humor site Old Man Murray (OMM): “It’s an amazing piece of work by a tiny group living in a country most people thought had been blown up a few years ago. […] It’s just the kind of uplifting, underdogs-struggling- against-impossible-odds success story that could only happen in America or Croatia.”

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In an unprecedented display of actual journalism, Wolpaw interviewed Croteam CEO Roman Ribaric in June 2000 and April 2001:

Erik: We contacted a very famous pampered American webmaster and asked him for his thoughts on Serious Sam. He was pretty dismissive, and he said that Serious Sam seemed “unprofessional”. Do you have assholes like that in Croatia?

Roman: First, something about Croatian mentality. There is a saying here: “It’s not important that my cow is dying, as long as my neighbour’s cow dies, too.” […] Explaining that, majority over here in Croatia think that Sam is okay, but it’s nowhere near [Unreal Tournament] or [Quake III]. Also, they think engine is not so good. In our newsgroups we are losing to the Daikatana.

OMM’s publicity helped Serious Sam secure an American distribution deal through On Deck Interactive. In gratitude, Croteam stuck Erik in Sam‘s Hatshepsut level and put an in-joke in the Sacred Yards level. In honor of OMM’s famous diatribe against one particular shooter cliche, the Crate Review System (“Games can be rated and compared based on the shortest amount of time it takes a player to reach the first crate, which represents the point where the developers ran out of ideas”), Croteam installed a switch that transforms an ancient pyramid into an immense stack of crates.

You could say Serious Sam put Croatia on the gaming map, except most American gamers probably still can’t find it. The Balkan state, formerly part of Yugoslavia, lies on the Adriatic coast of the Mediterranean, opposite Italy. (Can American gamers locate Italy on a map? Don’t ask.) The country is beautiful and lushly forested, a big European tourist destination whenever it’s not embroiled in bloodshed.

Croatia last hit the headlines in 1991-1995, during the “ethnic cleansing” genocides and relocations after Yugoslavia’s breakup. Today, as a sort-of-industrialized, sort-of-democracy, Croatia is peaceful and making news as a candidate for the European Union. Artist Admir Elezovic commented in a 2001 interview that the difficulty of working in Croatia has to do with perception: “We are coming from a country that was at war a few years ago. People had a hard time believing that someone from a small European country could make anything good (some people even thought there were no computers in Croatia).”

Pish tosh. Robert Westmoreland, who made the original deal with Croteam for American distribution of Serious Sam, said in a GameSlice interview, “The office they [Croteam] have is very much like that you would find for a developer of their size in the States, and the equipment they use is updated. Money is money no matter where you are.”

Manpower and equipment are readily available, but Croteam programmer Dean Sekulic highlights the real barrier for growth, “The problem in Croatia is not lack of talent or knowledge. Quite the opposite – we do have lots of talented people who are capable of making excellent games, but it’s impossible to find the financing.”

So Croteam found some of their own money. They financed the new Serious Sam 2 partly through licensing of the Serious Engine. It went for $20-$100,000, about 10-20% of the price of the Quake III engine at the time. Of 14 licensees, only two made it to the shelves, both in 2004: the mediocre Alpha Black Zero: Intrepid Protocol, created by Dutch studio Khaeon and published by Playlogic; and Nitro Family, by short-lived Korean studio Delphieye, published (for about five minutes) by Valusoft. Croteam hasn’t yet announced licensing terms for its new Serious Engine 2.0.

So that’s the how, but that leaves us with why? Is there any reason why Croats, in particular, would devise Serious Sam?

It is unrewarding to search the game for Rosebud-like antecedents in Croatian history or culture. Granted, the Croats’ gory 13-century history is a chronicle of bitter struggle against their blood enemies, the Serbs – also the Bosniaks, Montenegrins, Venetians, Ottoman Turks, Hungarians, Austrians, Jews, Gorani, and Roma, but above all the Serbs. Yet it would be asinine to compare that tragic chronicle to Sam‘s onrushing waves of Beheaded rocketeers, Kleer skeletons, Sirian werebulls, Scythian witch-harpies, Aludrian reptiloid-highlanders, Zumb’uls from planet Ras’Ad’Nyk, incredibly annoying Reeban Electro-Fish, and Santa Claus. To expect any given game to reflect some putative national character is like expecting one individual to conform to the stereotypical traits of a whole race.

Well then, having seen Croteam’s success, will other Croats follow, transforming their country into a juggernaut of electronic entertainment? Stranger things have happened in history; for a hundred years, all the best clocks and watches came from Switzerland. So far, though, there are hardly a dozen game companies in the entire Balkan region, all quite small, plus a few freeware and shareware indies.

The obstacles to success are, pardon the pun, serious. Money is critically tight, and the government is corrupt. In Transparency International’s 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index, Croatia ranked 70th out of 159 countries with a low score of 3.4 on a scale of 10 (10 being the least corruption), tying with Burkina Faso, Egypt, Lesotho, Poland, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. (America was #17 with a score of 7.6. Number 1 was Iceland, 9.7.) More ominously for business, it’s always possible some Army thug will try another ethnic cleansing.

But the Croteam story does herald a larger and more interesting future hotbed of gaming: Earth.

Serious Implications
Serious Sam, for all its frivolity, really does portend a lesson about globalization. Not as in, “We’re gonna lose all our jobs to Croatia,” but as in, “Soon lots more people everywhere will create games.” Only a small fraction of any given population cares to make games, but to date, hardly more than a billion people, a sixth of the world’s population, could have tried even if they wanted to. In the next few years to a decade, the required tech will become available to another sixth or third of Earth’s people: urban China, some of the former Soviet republics, south and southeast Asia, Brazil, Argentina…

Commodity computers go for U.S. $200, a week’s income in Croatia. Linux is open-source, and Windows sells across much of the world for a buck per pirated CD. All the application software for creating games – office suites, compilers, textures, animation, audio – is either free, open-source, or pirated on BitTorrent. On the Web you can find programming texts, math texts, and tutorials, and you can market your game from a cheap domain. For most people, the last remaining tech bottleneck is broadband. It’s anyone’s guess how long that will take, but broadband penetration, though uneven, is accelerating.

Of course, that’s just technology. There are two stronger limitations. First, culture: Will a Laotian cobbler or burkah-clad Tajik grandmother conceive a burning desire to create first-person shooters? Stranger things have happ – actually, no, they haven’t. The new game creators will probably come from the same demographic as the current bunch: young male scions of relatively upscale families, or obsessive proto-geeks willing to cross broken glass to code. Such people indisputably exist. The interesting question is, how many are there?

Which brings us to the second limitation: talent. History shows genius can appear in any population. Our current game gods – Miyamoto, Carmack, Meier, and that lot – are they each one-in-a-million? In-ten-million? Probably they’re far more common, given that Zagreb alone fielded six guys who can kick serious butt. But even if you set the standard high – one in a hundred million? – in the next few years we should see ten or 20 new game gods, all from places you couldn’t find on a map.

Brace yourself…

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay, and Looking Glass.

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