June 2008 Archives

So a while back I said I wanted to have a discussion of what I thought about the concepts of background, metaplot, and narrative as it pertains to game writing, and why I think that CCP dropped the ball a bit when it comes to establishing those three things, and so here it is.  While I realize that this may seem a little pretentious -- let's face it, I am not exactly a "real" game writer (yet) and there's many other people out there far more qualified to articulate this kind of thing -- I'd like to think that I have a pretty good grasp of the concepts and that, at least to me, these aren't just the purview of published authors, but really everyone who's ever run an RPG.
....now is the time to do it.  I got mail from John Ossoway, the Cthulhu Rising head honcho, announcing the new version of the Cthulhu Rising monograph from Chaosium (which, incidentally, I have a credit in now -- woohoo!).  In addition to everything that was in the last version, this new one has:

  • New cover art by Ben Thornley
  • Updated timeline and background information
  • Expanded information on colony worlds
  • Expanded information on weapons and equipment
  • Updated rules for psychic powers
  • New character sheets
  • New layout
But even better news, according to John, if sales of the monograph are good enough, Cthulhu Rising may actually be published as a real distributed title, which would be pretty awesome for everyone who's worked on Cthulhu Rising over the last bunch of years.  So if you have any interest at all, I'd like to make an appeal to all three of you who read this blog to pick it up.  You can get it in print or in PDF form from the Chaosium website.

My apologies for this bit of shameless self-promotion, I will now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.
Joss Whedon is evidently putting out a very strange three-episode web series that he was working on during the writer's strike, starring Nathan Fillion and the NPH.  It could be "shiny" and/or "legendary."



Teaser from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog on Vimeo.

More about it at http://doctorhorrible.net or http://drhorrible.com.
So I've been meaning to do at least a couple short reviews on a few of the books I've read recently, but I just haven't had the time to really sit down and write out my thoughts on them.  I'm finally going to get around to this, and I apologize if they are a little vague; I left this go a bit too long and some of the details are a little fuzzy now.

Spook Country is first on the list.  William Gibson's latest, I saw it getting good reviews on RPGnet and decided to pick it up and try to figure out why I hadn't read anything by him in ages.  As I said before, Spook Country really felt like returning to a literary home for me; despite the fact that the book takes place in 2006, it is undeniably a cyberpunk book, and focuses on many of the same themes that are touched on in Neuromancer and his other books.  The writing style is very similar to what I remembered from the Sprawl trilogy, and as with everything I've read from him from Count Zero on, the book is constructed from multiple points of view that start out separate and slowly come together at the end.

While I have a harder time really describing too much what the story is about, simply because it encompasses so many themes, the one thing that seems to unify most of the plotlines in the book is the way technology, especially the internet, has intertwined with daily life in a way that is both similar and completely diferent from what Gibson envisioned in Neuromancer.  Gone are the neon cities, replaced with GPS and near-ubiquitous wireless networks that make things like locative art possible.  Buried somewhere in there is an espionage plot that touches on the kleptocracy of Iraq and the overreaching national security apparatus of the United States, but I get the feeling that is more of a medium in which Gibson is trying to use to explore these other concepts.

So, after reading Spook Country and really enjoying it, I decided to pick Virtual Light back up and try to figure out why I never really got into it when I first tried reading it (which must have been near when it was first published, back in 1993-94).  This time, I didn't have any problem getting into the book, and I am a bit baffled as to why I didn't like it when I tried before.  It didn't seem that much different, at least in style, from Neuromancer, with a much more straightforward action plot than Spook Country (though it doesn't start out that way).

I thought it was interesting that Gibson's three trilogies have been more and more contemporary as technology and society have become closer and closer to what he envisioned in his earlier works.  Virtual Light was especially interesting in the fact that when he wrote the book, it took place 12 years in the future, and when I was reading it, it took place 3 years in the past.  Gibson doesn't get the future quite right, of course, but it still rings pretty true and the book is filled with the immersively real places I've comes to expect from him -- the Bridge, the strange curio shop Berry looks into a job at, the messenger services offices, the party Chevette steals the VR glasses at, and the trailer community for the television oracle religious commune, for a few examples.

For some reason, the Bridge especially appeals to me.  In large part, I think that is because the Bridge is a community and a place built upon a historical artifact but also molded by the very people that live there, a fusion of old construction and new, one that feels very lived in and homey despite its obviously fragile and grungy state.  It's one reason that having a loft in a warehouse or some other reclaimed building appeals to me; it feels less artificial, more natural -- like a cave reclaimed from the wilderness, and certainly not sterile.

The plot of the novel also touches on this -- the hacker group that screws Berry over in the beginning of the novel and who saves him in the end is prompted to act to defend San Francisco, a place at least some of them call home and which also has that same aspect of being a new city built on the bones of the old, organically grown -- in contrast to the city that Sunshine wants to construct, which is going to be carefully sculpted from the ground up (despite the fact that it actually is going to be grown, by nanotechnology -- this is an artificial growth, not a natural process).  Once again, Gibson's plot is not nearly as gripping as the details and themes he explores.

The last book on this hit parade is Freakonomics, which I've wanted to read ever since I saw one of the authors, economist Steven Levitt, talking about it on the Daily Show a few years ago, but I never really got around to it.  My brother got it for Christmas a while back and I finally got around to borrowing it last weekend.  It's a quick (and for a book on economics, rather light) read, and it is probably one of the most interesting and thought-provoking books I've ever read.  I don't know that I really buy the "these are just the fact, you can take them as you will" tone that Levitt and Dubner try to set, at least entirely, but it does a good job of backing up the assertions it makes with facts and examples, so you can at least look into what they are saying if you want.

The best part of the book for me was how they tied in all sorts of anecdotes into wider studies and examples that push you to think just that much harder about the "common sense" things you pick up over your lifetime.  They also approach things very analytically, at least supposedly without any agenda or bias, which appeals to my brain (and, perhaps somewhat egotistically, it's what I think the "Caldari mindset" is), and it can lead to some seriously disturbing conclusions -- that all the innovative policing in the world matters less than legalized abortion, for instance (though the upshot of that chapter would seem to be that any method for preventing the birth of unwanted children would be beneficial).

It's not going to be the kind of book that changes the way you live your life, but it might make you think about things you wouldn't have otherwise questioned.  Well worth a read, even if you aren't that interested in economics (I found the stories about the way the KKK was undermined and the analysis of the Black Gangster Disciples business operation to be extremely interesting on their own).  And, if you want more from the authors in the same vein, they have a blog on the New York Times website.
Okay, I actually don't know if I have any actual Viking ancestors (though I am an eighth Swedish), but as of yesterday I have reserved my flight to Reykjavik and my hotel stay there in preparation for Eve Online's FanFest 2008.  It's pretty exciting; despite the displeasure I may have with some of the more recent developments in Eve, I have been hoping I'd be able to make it to FanFest this year to meet people I've been playing the game with for over two and a half years now, to get to participate in some of the roundtables and other discussions with the developers, and maybe plug myself a little for a job too (though I don't know how successful that will actually be).

This will actually be my first trip outside the US, so it's pretty exciting for that reason too.  I'm looking forward to the experience, if not the annoying flight schedule (leave at 2035 from Boston, get to Reykjavik at 0645), and although I'm sure the weather in Iceland in November is not particularly pleasant, I'm hoping to get to see some of the sights and stuff while I'm there.  On the way back, I'm hoping to spend a few days in Boston as well, where I can catch up with benoc; with any luck, Marc will be able to meet me there and we can spend some time seeing the city, since he's never really spent much time there before.

I'm definitely looking forward to meeting a lot of the folks I know over in Europe, since I'll be seeing quite a few of CAIN's US contingent this year at GenCon.  It's certainly going to be an action-packed second half of this year, with GenCon, surgery, and then FanFest pretty much one right after another!  I will definitely be getting a camera before the trip and plan to blog as much as I can about it, so watch this space.

That Big Green Guy

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Friday night, after I picked up Marc from the train station and we had a tasty dinner (and my first martini -- fine, foofootini -- at Guido's of the summer), the two of us went to see the new Incredible Hulk movie at the Art Theatre downtown (which appears to have gotten new seats since the last time I went there, clearing up one of the complaints I've seen about it in the past).

The non-spoilerific review is that, while not up to the high standard set by Iron Man, it isn't a bad flick and it's certainly an above average action movie.  The plot moved along pretty quickly -- almost too quickly, with some of the slower scenes feeling like they were just there to get you to the next action scene -- and the acting was above average, led of course by the always-excellent Ed Norton.  It still fell short in a lot of places though; Tim Roth's villain feels kind of poorly written, the Hulk's CGI looks very conspicuous (but I'm not sure there was any way for it not to be), it lacked some of the humor of Iron Man, and while Liv Tyler is a bit more believable as a cellular biologist than Denise Richards was as a nuclear physicist, she also doesn't have to spout much in the way of technobabble either.

It's not a horrible movie by any stretch, however, and it's well worth seeing if you're at all interested in seeing it.  I haven't seen Ang Lee's Hulk, but from what I understand, this movie is a much more conventional action movie than that one was, but that it is basically a direct sequel.

For the spoilerific review, have a look behind the cut.
The third article in this series will examine the lives of the average Caldari, the 80-90% of the population that makes up the wheels and gears of the Caldari State and its corporations.  This chapter is going to pull from many of the same sources as the previous one, as well as a few other books that highlight the situation on the ground, as it were.  The biggest example is the Sprawl Survival Guide, another excellent Shadowrun soucebook.  While most of that focuses more on the specifics of that universe, it also includes a great many good examples of how corporations stay in control over the populace.

The biggest thing to take from this chapter will be that for most people in the State, life is fairly good, at least to them.  This is not because the corporations are particularly generous, or even care that much about the people that work for them, but because the corporations have conducted a centuries-long marketing campaign to promote themselves as the friend of the average man or woman and maintain the level of discontent at a minimum.  After all, workers that despise their jobs or, at an extreme, believe that they have nothing to lose from a violent strike, do not do good jobs and cost companies millions or billions of ISK in lost productivity (or even deliberate sabotage).

So with that summary, let's move on to the real meat of the article.
For the second installment of the Caldari Dialogues, I'm going to be taking a look at the corporations of the Caldari State: where they came from, how they operate and compete, their objectives and how they work to accomplish them.  From here on out, we'll be talking about the modern Caldari State, at least as it was prior to May of this year; the events with Tibus Heth have been, in my opinion, rather contradictory to everything that came before, so I'm going to avoid talking about them.  This article series is, to be quite honest, intended to explain my problems with those events in terms of plausibility, so that shouldn't be too huge a surprise for anyone.

I'll be relying on a couple of sources for a lot of my references in this chapter.  The primary one is going to be Corporate Shadowfiles, the superb Shadowrun sourcebook written by the late Nigel Findley, one of my role models as a game designer and fiction writer.  This book includes a number of things that people interested in the State will find supremely useful, including a discussion how modern corporations are structured and operate, various methods of corporate competition, and a number of Shadowrun-specific notes on various incidents between megacorporations that can give a great deal of insight on what probably happens in a similar cyberpunk setting like we find in the State.  This book is an excellent primer on corporate capitalism that is not only extremely well-researched and informative, but an excellent and interesting read.

Other references and influences include the Mekong Dominion Leaguebook for Heavy Gear, a well written sourcebook about a society on Terra Nova structured very much like the Caldari State, Blade Runner, Max Headroom, the collected works of William Gibson (especially the Sprawl Trilogy and the Bridge Trilogy), and I'm sure a zillion other things I can't remember right now.  Basically, my ideas about the State are very rooted in the cyberpunk genre, which is something that I think CCP definitely had in mind when they were developing the State.

So without further adieu, let's move on.  The body of the article continues behind the cut.
A while back, I was having a conversation with someone about what books I would recommend for someone who was trying to break into game writing but hadn't had much experience with game design, just the writing part (not that I've really been more successful, to be quite fair).  Since I've been doing a lot of reading on the topic since I applied for a job at Obsidian Entertainment about 4 years ago.  Even though I was rejected (and quite frankly, considering how little I really knew about game design and how amateurish the example material I sent them was, I can't blame them), I got what was perhaps the best rejection letter I've ever seen.  Instead of the usual "thank you for your interest, but at this time, blah blah blah" stuff you usually get, I got about a two page letter back giving me a pretty detailed analysis of my application and example work and giving me suggestions for what to do to improve my chances of breaking into the industry, even suggesting a I try for a junior position at a couple other places.  That's a class act, and I really wish more places took the time to do that.

Anyway, one of the suggestions they made was to read more about game design and game writing, which is considerably different from writing a novel or short story; in fact, one of the common problems with game writers is "frustrated novelist syndrome."  I definitely have become a better writer since I started reading up on this stuff, especially when I think about my writing as it pertains to games, even in pen and paper stuff.  I would encourage other people with a similar interest to read up on game writing as well.

So, here's a list of a few books I've read over the last few years:

  • Creating Emotion in Games, by David Freeman.  This book does a good job of describing how to create characters that people will find compelling and really empathize with, and how you can use that to build a strong story around those characters.  The book's introduction also has a good breakdown that highlights the unique challenges of game writing (or, as Freeman suggests as a better term, "emotioneering") compared to screenwriting or other more linear narratives.  Definitely a good book for beginning writers to pick up, or for people who are trying to transition into game writing from a more traditional writing perspective.
  • Game Architecture and Design, by Andrew Rollings and Dave Morris.  Especially if you've never worked in the industry, this book is a good primer for how books go from concept stage, through development, and finally to a finished product, with a heavy emphasis how to create compelling, interesting gameplay as well as keep your work manageable.  This book is less about writing and more about the overall process of game design, which it is important to understand if you want to do any sort of work in the gaming industry.
  • Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design, by Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams.  Another book like the previous one, this one focuses on the basic concepts behind game design in practice and theory, as well as an overview of the game design challenges in a variety of genres.  If you're looking for a quick primer on how game design works at a higher level than the previous book, this may be the one for you.
  • Developing Online Games, by Jessica Mulligan and Bridgette Patrovsky.  This one is more focused on creating online games, especially MMOs.  Though perhaps a bit out of date, since it was published in 2003, it still has important lessons to teach about all sorts of design and management issues for MMOs and other online games.  The book discusses everything from the planning and budgeting for an MMO, to the design, to preparing for launch, and finally, to managing the game after it's been released.  It also includes a post-mortem of Anarchy Online, which Mulligan worked on, and some additional articles on topics such as player psychology, managing disruptive behavior, increasing player retention, and Dr. Richard Bartle's rather famous "Players Who Suit MUDs" article, which is a must read for anyone developing games with a social component.
I have a few other books, but to be honest I don't remember which I have read and which I haven't sometimes.  These are the four that I think stick out in my mind the most, and definitely a good start for anyone looking to learn more about game design.


Jeremy pointed me to this article on Kotaku regarding Jack Thompson's latest mental breakdown in a Florida courtroom:

Before walking out of the courtroom, Thompson filed what he called "Thompson's Formal Objection to June 4 Sanctions Hearing." In the rambling, 4,500-word objection, Thompson questioned Tunis' ability to preside at his hearing, calling her incompetent and arrogant and threatening to have her removed from office "in the days and weeks ahead." He also went on to call the people run The Florida Bar fascists and denied that he was involved some sort of "petty culture war."
Before I read the article, I said that if he had screamed "no, you're out of order!" he would have completed the scene; having read the article it looks like that's pretty much exactly what he did.  It's getting to the point where I actually feel sorry for the guy....
This is going to be the first segment of what is intended as a multipart series discussing the way the I, as a writer and Caldari roleplayer in Eve Online, see the way the State and its people.  Recently, there has been a lot of headbutting about this on the Chatsubo, through which I suspect I have made few friends among the people at CCP who are in charge of the latest storyline leading up to the debut of Faction Warfare on 10 June.  I am posting these here mostly as a result of a discussion I had with the players of Kai Zion and Yoshito Sanders, who have been of the opinion that my rather scathing criticism of the storyline has been a bit premature.  Because that conversation seemed to at least enlighten them, I thought I would use that conversation (and a log which Kai so generously provided) as a springboard for a series of more in-depth articles on the topic.  I'll be interspersing bits of our conversation with my text, so you can see what happened there.  However, just a warning; these quotes are not in the chronological order from the discussion, but in relevance to the topic.  I'll include the timestamp though.

I won't just be discussing the Caldari per se, but I'll also be bringing in a lot of references that I think shaped the way I view Caldari society, and probably contributed to the thoughts of those people originally responsible for the idea of the Caldari when Eve was in its germination stages.  Where possible, I'll try to make sure I quote or link these sources, but sometimes that isn't going to be feasible; I'll try to include enough information about them that you can hunt them down on your own if you want, at the very least.

I'll be putting the bulk of these entries behind the cut -- they are going to run long, probably, so if I don't they are going to make the front page look a little weird.  As always, I invite comments, criticism, and analysis from anyone.  And with that, let's get to the first part of this discussion, where I'll discuss what I see are the foundations of Caldari thought, morality, and attitudes, and where they came from, both in Eve history and in reference to the real world.

Ugh.

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Evidently not really exercising for 14 years has some downsides.  Who would have guessed?

Back when I was in high school at Uni, I had a pretty strenuous PE class -- every other day was running, starting with two or three four minute runs and working up to one long 15-20 minute run, capped off by a mandatory 5K every year.  I wasn't ever really a standout, but I did manage to get my mile time down to a bit over six minutes and I felt pretty good about myself.  At the time, I was also playing and/or refereeing hockey, so I think I was keeping in pretty good shape all told.

And then I hit college, and realized I didn't need to do that kind of crap anymore.  I didn't really ride my bike much (I haven't even had a bike since I left college, really), and the only real exercise I've gotten lately is walking home.  Granted, it's a four mile walk, but I don't really do it as often as I probably need to, and it's not quite the same as running or playing sports.

However, I've been having some trouble sleeping lately since changing some of my medications, and my therapist recommended that I start getting some exercise to offset that.  I've sort of known I should be getting in shape for a long time, but this was sort of the last impetus I needed to push me over the edge.  Last night, I made a promise to myself that I'd get up and go for a jog this morning -- not that long, really, just about a mile and a half or two miles at most -- just to kind of shake out the cobwebs.  Needless to say, this did not work out nearly so well as I expected.  I'm guessing I ran out of steam before I hit the first quarter mile mark and had to walk for a while to catch my breath, jog some more, walk....all told, I probably only jogged about half the time at most.

I knew I was out of shape, but this was a little worse than I thought.  I know I've put on some weight in the last few years since I started hormones, but I didn't really realize how bad it was.  I think it might be time to sort of get things in gear and try to shed some of this weight, or at least get a bit more in shape.  If I could lose 10 or 15 pounds this summer, I'd be pretty happy with myself, since I probably am going to have a harder time exercising this fall.  I'm hoping that if I put it on my blog here, I'll get a little extra push.  We'll see where this goes, I guess.

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This page is an archive of entries from June 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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