David McLeod (OpenEmu) Interview: Mac style emulation

First I will like you to introduce yourself…

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away…

Oh, wait, thats Star wars.

Let me try again. A long time ago, my parents left Scotland to live in Michigan (USA) and had three kids. Me being the oldest. I lived a fun 11 years there before my parents got homesick and decided to return ‘home’. Fast-forward to 2011 and I am full fledged 29yr old designer working on a range of varied projects and client work.

I started my design career taking the complex VCR manual my parents had & redesigning it so it was easier to understand. My first time demonstrating a talent in what some call information architecture! Excluding buzz words, I like to think I it means that I can take complex bullshit & make it easier for people. I was designing touchscreen remote UI’s in my teens (Phillips Pronto Pro remotes), leading me to love media & further pushed me into completing a BA in Graphic Communication at UWIC Cardiff.

My spare time in those early days was spent working on just about every media center project you can imagine, but I had a very active role in CenterStage, a little bit for Plex and a lot more with Moovida. Professionally I started my first job for a design studio called WESTS. Working with developers producing shopping carts and flash frontends which was good training for interactive practices before I moved into front-end software design.

Now though, I am back doing the freelance thing again. Pushing pixels, making icons, consulting on iPhone applications and other bits and pieces.

When did you start playing videogames?

Me and my family used to go to Pizza Hut maybe once a month as something different, as a treat or to get out the house during heat waves in summer months. I have fond memories of that place, at around 6 years old, it seemed kind of dark, yet warm and there was a nice smell of spices and garlic bread. It was a big enough place that they had some arcade units in the corner. I used to beg my parents for money to play on those machines. There would be a few different ones but they were expensive and I was only given a dollar worth of quarters and told it had to last (my dad was a tight-ass!). However, the Pacman machine, it was only 25 cents a game & the controls were easy for me at such a young age. So I could get four games in and make it last until our pizza was ready. That was my first video game memory and where things spawned from. It is also why you might see some love towards Pacman in things I do. Eventually I wanted to play these at home… but that is another tale of nostalgia!

What are your best memories of those days? (A game or a gaming experience that you remember from back then that almost brings tears of joy… hehehe :P)

Hard to narrow it down to one, I think maybe one of my favourites wasn’t about me playing games. It was when my dad was curious about this ‘Super Mario’ thing me an my brother were engrossed in. I can remember him scoffing at me in the beginning thinking it cant be all that hard this video game stuff…fast forward to that summer holiday and my dad rushing home in his lunch break, kicking me off my NES because he had limited time to have another crack at finishing the game… this time he would do it! He was obsessed and I learnt some new swear words too.

Every gamer has his “broken dream”… I always wanted a Neo Geo back then… Do you have any “broken dream”? A game you wanted so bad for weeks but you didn’t get to have, or something like that…

I don’t know, I mean I wasn’t one of the rich kids growing up, so you might think there was stuff I wanted but never had a chance to own or experience. However, I had a good network of friends who owned something I didn’t. So, we would swap games, even consoles for a weekend. Or I’d rent a game and play it at a sleepover or something to get my fix. I do have memories of badly wanting a Super Nintendo, but with moving to a new country (leaving the states to come to Britain), new schools and being young with a £3 a week allowance, it was a long time before I got it… but I did get it, so the dream wasn’t broken, just stalled. The wait nearly ‘broke me’ though and time moves even slower for kids!

Are you still a gamer today? If so, what are your “weapons”? Your favorite game from this generation?

This might sound crazy considering what this whole interview is about, but I hardly game anymore. Its sad, but the last time I think I was ‘gaming’ , say 10 – 20 hours average a week on games was around the time Majora’s Mask came out for the N64. Something happened, maybe it was girls, maybe it was the moving onto school exams, the outside chance I had a potential football (soccer) career or going off to Uni. Or, it might even have been the move to 3D gaming and polygons that put me off during those years. Something happened. Have no fear though, I am getting back into it very slowly. I have an XBOX 360, and had lengthy spells some nights on that. Spent way too much time playing Plants v Zombies on my iPhone… little steps but nothing remotely hardcore yet.

When did you start to care about emulation?

I was in school, maybe 15 or something and one of the nerdy kids who knew about PC stuff was playing Mario World on the school library computer. I had to know how he was doing that. So, he told me about SNES9X and ZSNES I think. My dad had a laptop for work (We never had a family computer), and I would use it in the evenings by bringing home games Id downloaded from school (we didn’t have the internet at home either! – my parents were kind of hippies).

Are you playing any retro-games right now?

Yeah, now and then. I have little spells. Currently have some sessions on Mario Kart during work breaks or blast through some levels of Metal Slug. Like I said though… Im not gaming that much anymore. I went to see Scott Pilgrim in the cinema lately and the first 15 minutes had a ton of Zelda references. So, I fired up OpenEmu when I got back and had some fun with old 8bit classics. It tends to happen in fits and starts like that. I think peoples responses to my OpenEmu work and certain other game related hobby projects of mine are getting me back into it all though.

When and how did you know about the Open Emu project? How did you start to work with the rest of the team?

This is a long answer but: I am insane when it comes to looking at technology and software. I scour Engadget, Gizmodo, Ars and lots of forum sites in a day to name a few. So, I had seen references to these guys, maybe the last two years or so off and on. It always seemed more of a kick-ass tech demo of what Core Animation and Quartz Composer can do than anything. (most OpenSource stuff is like that). I kept an eye on them though. My thinking at that time, and reason for checking them out was based on my work with various media centers and finding interesting media solutions that could be incorporated. It seemed like their project might be leveraged to put into a media center for playing games. So it was bookmarked for another day. I felt and still feel that projects like Boxee & Plex are really missing a huge swath of people by not finding some official gaming solutions to their platforms. Boxee in particular would do well to team up with someone like OnLive, or Indie game developers and offer something extremely interesting.

Anyway, when I finished up my old job in Spain a little over a year ago, it freed up a lot of time for personal projects and general downtime between design jobs. I had earlier come across a post by someone asking what the best emulators were for various systems on the Mac. What ensued was a train wreck of a thread watching an average user getting to grips with the general geek-iness of developer driven software. They didn’t understand why there was no GUI for Mupen64+ and questions about what the ‘terminal’ was, or why a game didn’t load, or their gamepad wouldn’t work or other similar problems.

So it got me thinking. I emailed Richard Bannister about doing a proper, more user friendly, all inclusive experience (all his emulators in one single app) and giving it a lick-able application front-end. He had posted about wanting to improve the UI of his apps before. After emailing him, I got the impression he preferred doing things himself. Not that there is anything wrong with it, he has his own direction and ideas… it/they are his baby and he did so much for the Mac emulation scene. Plus, I understand people have limited time. Yet, I had a bug in my head about my ideal gaming experience from a software and UX perspective and couldn’t let it go. So I started asking questions here and there, and the OpenEmu project was mentioned to me again. After spending some time with it and revisiting the project my eyes lit up, I knew it was not only ready but at the right stage for my ideas and skills. So, I messaged them on Twitter about possibly designing a front-end to their work (and I saw a few positive responses to other people in the sourceforge forum that suggested they would be open to my line of enquiry)… things kind of progressed from there.

Is this your first open source work? How much of your spare time is taken by a project like this?

I think most of my software endeavours in my short career so far have been open source. From CenterStage, to MAME Library, TMDb or even Plex in the early days before it became a conflict of interests with my then ‘new’ job in Spain. With that job even having open source aspects. Open Source software can be a rewarding experience as you can get your hands into everything. Commercial software tends to have money men and levels of hierarchy, and ‘need-to-know’ attitudes where you are required to just slot into your job and plug away. So projects like OpenEmu or open source in general can be a breathe of fresh-air.

In terms of time it took. I think because I talked to Josh Weinberg the lead OE dev so openly and our ideas seemed to be almost exactly the same, there wasn’t a huge amount of time required. Usually, I like to spend a lot of time up-front talking about ‘what-ifs’ and brainstorming, just generally cutting loose with wild crazy ideas, then trimming it all down to must-haves and what is both feasible and do-able for a first release. We seemed to gel straight away and our ideas were similar, so we didn’t need that too much. I would also have normally done some wireframes first before spending hours on visual design that could potentially be rejected. Again though, I could sense he and the guys knew what they wanted and it matched what I had in my head as well. So I jumped straight in. Straight out the gate, the first mockup I did was well received by Josh and the other guys. I only had to tweak that first mockup once as they wanted a sidebar to the app. Each mockup thereafter was straight forward and in their eyes ‘perfect’. The mockups themselves were maybe 15 hours or so of work for the main UI but that is because I have major OCD and make sure every button has all the different hover, press, inactive states etc produced. When I handed the PSD’s over to the gang they were shocked just how meticulous it all was (Im a freak like that). Recently, the preference section work has taken a little longer, due to some icon work, thinking over what settings are needed and talking to Josh about it. Oh and those controller illustrations are the real time sink there… maybe a couple hours or so per controller so far, but it will be worth it. I’ve only done 4 out of the required 9 or so and the gameboy one was graciously donated to me by Edward Sanchez.

Tell us why Open Emu is different from other emulators out there…

Well, people ask me when OpenEmu is going to be released, but you can technically try it out now! Ok, it hasn’t got the front-end I’ve designed in there yet but you can see the potential of the app? The intelligent approach the guys took to this project by leveraging the various other popular open source emulators out there and putting them under one roof, into one app like this while utilising some of the Mac’s most exciting technologies is inspired. It means that we can incorporate the good work of all those great emulator projects and our task is more about creating  a great app to manage it all, tie it all together, organise your games while those other projects worry about the rest. It fits that Apple mac philosophy of ‘it just works’. No geekiness, no toggling of a million different settings to get game ‘X’ working. No loading a different emulator each time for a different game. The current build of the app has some crinkly parts to the UX experience like being constantly asked you what ‘core’ or emulator to run a game in but… as you can see, we all know it will get better and the potential this approach has.

I love the big step forward that version 1.0 seems to be for the software… What are the nicest add-ons you guys are working on from your point of view?

I think, the eagerness to produce the UI is the main focus at present and prepping the current build, squashing bugs ready for that work to begin. As for potential extras, there are plans for automatic game lookup when you add a game or rom. (more on that later). There are also some extras like iPhone support that are extremely interesting and I’ve had some ongoing discussion about that which excites me. With my media center background, I have some fun ideas there that I hope can be achieved. I cant say at this point when this stuff will happen or how it will take shape. With open source projects, it is done in our spare time and as passionate as everyone is, we only have so much energy in what should be our ‘down time’. I guess that might sound conservative. I think the ‘version 1 UI’ alone and the overall experience of it will excite you enough once it drops. After that, it is all about continual improvement and I, and the other guys have some unique ideas.

Just by taking a look at the captures everybody will notice how great the app is going to look… Has your influence as an interface designer pushed the software features in a new direction? Was the library something that was in the developement roadmap before you joined the team?

The guys seemed to know or felt that a better UI or front-end would also mean a better project. At least as far as the general public were concerned. They knew it would entice more people into using it. When you talk to a new group of people like I did in the beginning, you don’t want to tread on any toes, or criticise their ‘baby’ as they have invested time into it. Who is this new guy with the wild crazy ideas?

Luckily I slotted in fairly easy, and as I mentioned previously our ideas were in tandem. I think maybe a sense of trust or acceptance of who I was and my philosophy came when I started dropping those first mockups. I seemed to hit on the head all the ideas people had and got it ‘onto paper’.

I was headstrong, perhaps idealistic on a few parts though. I don’t want the app to include a broken experience like other emulation software and any emulator we include has to work without constantly toggling settings with a good 90% of games playable. Secondly, I wanted the app to have a dark feel so the bright colourful box art and the games themselves really jumped out at you, therefore making the buttons etc less prominent. Finally, I wanted the library aspect and concentration on the overall user experience to be as perfect as possible before moving onto more advanced ideas or features. Get the basics right first. The library aspect made sense to me and I know they had fleeting thoughts about it as well before I arrived so it wasn’t a new or alien idea. Overall, the library and categorisation aspect was the main motivation for me in this whole adventure. In my opinion the whole experience should revolve around it. So, I think I took all those loose ideas and concepts the other guys had, and tied it all together with my own, while giving careful consideration to the UX experience and visual design.

How is the cover art feature going to work? Is it going to be automatic or will the user have to “paste” the artwork manually? I can’t wait to import my ROM collection…

Worst case scenario, you will need to find your own cover artwork and paste it in. Best case scenario, you simply drop your games in and we can take care of everything. At the moment, it looks like you will get that ‘best case scenario’ for the version 1 release, but I cant make promises. When (not if) automatic game & artwork lookup happens, this will be due to work on another separate project I am involved with, codenamed ‘Archive’. Archive is a website that tracks video game information and related media through an open Wiki like database. It also has a robust API for third party developers (like OpenEmu) to utilise. We have that database setup already and even some publicly available apps are secretly using it!. So I hope the guys at OpenEmu will be able to leverage that API for automatic game lookup ready for version 1. You might notice, I purposely kept data entry to a minimum in the version 1 UI mockups. At this point I thought it would be crazy to expect people to add tons of metadata (info) themselves. We’ll do it all automatically for you at some point though and as the app grows it will include things like game information, screenshots, videos, guides, walkthroughs and more!

Are you going to redesign the app’s icon? If so, do you have any ideas of how it will look like or is it too soon to tell?

I will rework the app icon. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet as I’m lazy. The guys seem fairly stuck on the current Atari controller for the icon though. I would have liked to do something different. I had fleeting thoughts about resurrecting my Blinky icon from the dead and using it for OpenEmu (I found him a home in a new side-project instead). I will be doing a photo-realistic rendition of the control stick that fits in nicely next to the other icons in your dock. (excluding the iTunes 10 icon as nothing looks nice next to that monstrosity!). Also suddenly reminded again that the website will need a redesign too. I need to talk to them about this again…hey guys if you are reading this before I talked to you, I hope thats ok?

I hate iTunes 10 icon too… When did you start to care about GUI design? What are your bigger influences in that area?

You know, up until I was 17 or 18 I wasn’t really a computer person. I played games of course, but we never really had a family computer other than the various laptops my dad would utilise for work and brought home now and then. I didn’t really know what the internet was until 1999!. So I never realised someone like me could design GUI’s. That didn’t mean I was oblivious to what was good and bad out there from the experiences I had or the way things looked and functioned.

I used Photoshop on Windows computers in school, clicked through and enjoyed those old Encarta CD roms, or loaded games like Age Of Empires, or some emulation software onto my dads laptop now and then. It always seemed kind of geeky and prone to breaking. Going out and kicking a football around was more interesting to me than computer stuff at the time.

To answer your question though (with that last bit providing some background info), the first time I started to care about GUI design was the day I bought my first computer for my university course in graphic design. It was a white Macbook and I bought the first generation iPod to go with it. (I like to think I made iPods cool). It was so different from Windows computers and what I had known before. It looked and worked so much nicer. Everything you needed, Apple had installed on there I felt. Apple opened my eyes to just how good the experience can be if you care about the end user. This started a hunger in me that has only grown stronger since.

Do you have an iPhone or an iPad? Have you tried any emulators there? What do you think of the off-App Store community? Is there any plans to port Open Emu?

I have an iPhone, almost every generation of iPod and yes, I also have an iPad now. I have tried emulation on my iPhone, as I had to jailbreak it when I came back from Spain and my previous job. It really is a geeky domain. Jail breaking for me that first time was exceptionally easy but after that things get a little more advanced.

Cydia is a poorly designed mess but, you cant complain as it is the only portal to some exciting stuff Apple will never officially allow. My first reaction to emulation on my phone was being asked to pay for some of these ports of free open source software. You would think there would be some uproar about that. Anyway, most seem to run the games well but the iPhone screen and its physical hardware only offer you an eventual frustrating experience as your thumbs tend to ache pretty quick for apps that aren’t purposely designed for the screen.

As for porting OpenEmu to the iPhone. There hasn’t been any discussion about that. Obviously Apple would likely reject the app if we were to submit it officially (might be fun submitting the desktop app to the Mac App store and seeing what they say). We have some plans and loose ideas for an OpenEmu app that would work in tandem with the desktop app though. There are ideas there a lot more exciting and interesting than a mere controller app.

File managing in iOS is an old topic of discussion… Apple seems to think (at least for now) that the best way to go is by doing an apps centric operating system, instead of the traditional “files centric” one. Making every app deal with the files they produce/accept instead of making them open to every piece of software the user chooses… In OS X, iLife is the most known suite to use this system, and I think Open Emu is going to be another great example of well driven in-app file managing, because 99% of the users doesn’t need to have ROMS filed in folders to use them with more than one application… But what do you think of iOS file managing… Do you miss your files there or everything is going to have its own file manager from now on?

For Apple’s mobile hardware and software, the ‘app-centric’ approach is definitely the right UX path to follow. Can you imagine having to do file management on your phone in anything approaching the manner you do on your desktop? Do I miss files on my iPhone or iPad? No, but by the very nature of the hardware and the environment I am in, Im not doing anything beyond browsing the web or checking my mail. If it was more of a productivity tool then I would certainly encounter problems.

For the desktop environment. Things aren’t so clear. I feel with the upcoming OSX Lion release, Apple aren’t sure about a totally ‘app-centric’ approach either. Instead they are quietly testing the waters with features like LaunchPad only to iterate down the line based on consumer feedback and testing.

So, I think the desktop environment, at least for now will remain ‘file-centric’ but there is and will be an erosion of that as Apple quietly remove average users away from file management concerns. Apple started the process of worrying less about your files and more about using the app when they introduced iTunes and, as you say, later introduced this in their iLife range of software. That trend will continue until the Finder is no more and it is only power users who are shuffling their files around behind the scenes or doing the more technical things.

The best discussion I have seen about this covering different pros and cons of such and idea was this video from MacWorld Expo 2011.

Now, relating an ‘app-centric’ approach to OpenEmu, taking care of everything for the user is the right approach here. It does go beyond removing the need for geeky file management. The first hurdle that the guys figured out before I got there was the pain of finding, installing and setting up different emulators for all the different consoles you want to play. The process previously was all about drilling down through folders full of games and then knowing what emulator to open that chosen game in. (or just hope double clicking it does something). OpenEmu in the v1 mockups, removes that process. If your games are in there then you know it will play. The second aspect is, the file management. Logic dictates this is the right approach. If we can bring all these emulators under one roof, then lets make sure your games are close at hand too. For people who have used MAME apps in the past, you need to go outside the app and make sure you are putting roms, screenshots, cabinet art and more in correct folders, with even specific naming conventions so it makes the front-end usable. You just intuitively knew that this is not how things should be done. With OpenEmu, once your game is imported, we will organise everything you do around it. So relax, you only have to worry about what game you are going to concur next!

Is there any other of your projects that you want to talk us about? What is the GUI work you’re more proud of?

Well, I feel this is going to be a big 12 to 18 months for me. The past year (2010) was about setting things up and organising projects which I hope will pay off in this coming period. OpenEmu is part of that.

In the past, I have never really promoted myself, as I always felt I wasn’t ready or I wasn’t good enough. I decided it was time to change that. So being as busy as I can possibly be has been my goal this past year. Posting more on Flickr, getting invited to and adding to work on Dribble or Forrst. Talking and engaging with my peers a lot more. Setting up both commercial, opensource or hobby projects. Getting my portfolio website online as well… which will hopefully drop very soon.

With a bit of luck, you will hear the words OpenEmu, Tiles, The Party List, Archive and PlayPaper as a range of applications and projects from me.

Oh and the GUI I am most proud of? I think it was CenterStage. It looks dated now and the application never made it beyond a concept and an alpha app before Plex came along. Yet, the UI was the catalyst for some innovations in media centre software. It pushed concepts like FanArt which helped spawn the TMDb website. It also highlighted the need for good HTPC software on the mac and how simple it can work. It also got me a job working in Spain on media projects which I love as well some brief interest from Apple.

What’s your dream project? Your own videogame? Your own iOS app?

I feel the biggest eventual dream for me as a person would be setting up an indie software company focused on producing a small range of great software. I am envious of companies like RealMac or the IconFactory. I also still have a burning passion for media and wouldn’t mind having one more go at this media centre thing. I have a unique UX and navigation method not seen in other media centres that couldn’t be done outside of a larger company that has their kind of reach or access to content deals. It would be amazing if I could take that to a company like Apple, working on improving the AppleTV (actually overhauling it as I think its terrible).

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