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Operation: Backlog

I’ve played video games since Bowling on the Atari 2600 back in 1980.  I’ve played on most major consoles here in the U.S. (the Neo Geo is the one I skipped… that thing was stupidly expensive, though I loved some of its games in the arcades of the day), though I’m still stuck in the PS3/XB360 era due to lack of funding.  I’ve played PC and Mac games, from simple DOS games like Sleuth up through Star Control 2 and The Dig, and later, Batman: Arkham Asylum (I know, it’s a port, but it’s my most graphically intensive PC game) and Minecraft.

I discovered a taste for design in the Dark Castle days, drawing out new levels on graph paper.  I further refined my interest in mechanics when I did some serious work designing a world and game systems for a RPG in the King’s Quest days, though it wound up being more of a Final Fantasy Tactics sort of game.  I really, really wanted to make a good sequel to Chrono Trigger, and made many notes on what I’d do.  Chrono Cross, great game that it is, just didn’t scratch the same itch.

I’ve always enjoyed games, both playing and designing.  In many ways, creating new games is more satisfying, since I’m a creative sort and would rather produce than consume.

My BFA is in Computer Animation, and while some of my classmates have worked for Pixar, Rhythm and Hues, Blue Sky, Dreamworks and Weta, I wound up in the game industry.  I’d have loved working at Pixar making Disney films, like I planned to do as a kid, but circumstances led to other choices.  I still love animating, though I’m most experienced at modeling, texturing and solving weird tech issues, since I’m  a “Technical Artist”, comfortable with tech and art.

I worked for Headgate Studios, largely working on EA’s Tiger Woods games.  Then I worked at Wahoo Studios, making a few Kefling games along with a smattering of other projects both internal and contract work.  I have a list around here somewhere of the 15 or so games I am credited in, which qualifies me as a veteran of sorts. That said, as is so often true, time and economics caught up with me, and I’m now “retired” from the industry after almost a decade working on the art in games, with a bit of dabbling in design.

These days, I design my own games, write about what I’d do if I had pie-in-the-sky budgets to design games, do graphic design, make cool game accessories and try to find ways to make a living in a freelance world since there just aren’t career opportunities at the moment.  Once in a while, I even get to play games (though some of that time is just playtesting my games… I really need to update Chromaround).

Games and I, we have history.

Anyway, I’m in between serious contracts, and while I’m scrambling for something new to pay the bills, I have a few minutes here and there.  So, given that I’ve been collecting games over the years, adding to my Steam collection and assorted game bundles, I have more than a few games to fill that time with.

So, I’m going to be systematic about it and just start plowing through my game backlog.  I’m going to give each game 15 minutes to really grab me, then do a quick writeup of what happened, probably with a screenshot or two, and with some commentary about the design and art.  Pith may be present.  I might revisit the games, but I probably won’t.  Still, I want to do a bit of exploration.  It’s good to see what’s out there, and how other games are designed.

I’ll post those writeups here, though I’m not committing to any regular schedule or format.  Perhaps this is the sort of thing YouTube is for, but I hate being in videos and hearing myself.  Writing, that I can do.  We’ll see how it all settles out.

I know, I know, some games really need more than 15 minutes to get a proper shakedown, but, well, I can’t be the only one who only barely has time to graze games.  I could devote dozens of hours to the latest Final Fantasy when I was in high school, but these are different times.  I think it’s a good game design that has the ability to do something to earn further attention within those 15 minutes.  I simply won’t be doing some games justice, but that’s life in this saturated, cutthroat market.  There are still lessons to be learned, I think.

See you next time with a bit of commentary on what I’ve been playing, then I’ll mostly shelve those games and start trekking through the wilds.

Crowfall

Just in case you haven’t noticed this, there’s a new big MMO Kickstarter presently running with a full head of steam.

Crowfall

It seems good, and some of the pedigree is great (Raph Koster, J. Todd Coleman are ones that caught my eye).  It picks up on ideas I’ve written about before, and would still love to see in a big MMO.  It looks great, more like Wildstar, WoW or perhaps Torchlight rather than FFXIV or Guild Wars (I like dodging the Uncanny Valley, but I do love GW2’s more painterly art direction).  It could be a great game.

I want to be excited about it, but I’m feeling sort of amputated from the game world.  I worked there for almost ten years, and still love game design, but since I have almost no time to play and I’m sort of retired from the industry due to circumstance, it’s all just sort of… attenuated.

Still, Crowfall could be really good.  Go check it out.

Avatar: Aang and Korra

I really like Avatar: The Last Airbender.  Aang’s story is solid, and the core cast all get great moments like Katara’s “The Painted Lady”, Toph’s “The Blind Bandit” and Sokka’s “Sokka’s Master”.  Even Zuko’s arc works really well.  It’s not a perfect show, and it has its weak episodes like many shows, but for every beach party episode, there’s a gem like “The Boiling Rock”.  For every facepalming moment like the musical hippies, there are great character moments like Sokka reflexively covering Toph on a crashing airship or Iroh counseling a mugger.  There are even really great subtle worldbuilding touches like the trains in Ba Sing Se.  (And oh, Iroh’s Tale.)

It’s one of the very few series that I have on DVD, in the august company of DuckTales, Stargate SG-1 and MacGyver (classics, all, and though also cursed with the occasional stinker episode, the good far outweighs the bad).

So, when it came to the sequel Avatar series, Legend of Korra, I was really looking forward to seeing some cool new ‘bending tricks or even combo uses (like Chrono Trigger’s team-up Tech attacks) for the magic in that world.  I thought it would be great to see how technological advancements might happen in a world with magic, and how the two might compete and cooperate.  The world really has a ton of rich potential.

Unfortunately, I wound up disappointed with the characters, writing and meta manipulations of the series creators.  The animation is often great, and the flashback two-parter in Book 2 where we see the origin of the Avatar is really, really fine work.  I’ve had a hard time putting my finger on a lot of what bothered me, though, until I stumbled across this Tumblr:

Poorly Written, Poorly Executed

It’s true that there’s no shortage of criticism and nitpickery online, but almost every single entry I’ve read over there resonates with concerns I have with the series.  This one is perhaps the best place to start, though, looking at it through my perspective as an aspiring writer and experienced artist, since it underlines the backbone of the trouble; the creative staff.  (See also: the Star Wars “prequel” films, and how a rein-free Lucas squandered some of his goodwill credit.)

My single biggest complaint with Korra is that there is so much wasted potential.  The bad writing and character assassinations throughout are like a persistent cough, but the lost opportunities are really what bug me.  The series really could have tackled things ranging from social considerations of magic (one of the stronger themes in the series, but undermined by Amon’s big reveal), the importance of spirituality in the Avatar world, liberty vs. the State (OK, Book 3’s baddies were mostly well done), nascent dictators and assorted other considerations in a world where magic is relatively common but with wildly differing power levels.

There’s so much there to mine, but no, we got relationship drama, disjointed storytelling, burned bridges, relationship drama, character assassination, pointless drama, character assassination of the previous series’ characters, and relationship drama.  There were certainly high points, so the series isn’t devoid of value, but it could have been so much more.

One other big thing that bothers me is something that seems to be a concern in a lot of popular media.  Once the creators start engaging an audience, things can often go sour.  Far too many little beats in Korra came across as either fanservice or trolling that it became less of a legend and more of a performance art experience.  Maybe that’s fine for what some people want, but I think that the Avatar world deserved better.  There’s certainly a good reason to be aware of your audience, but I think there needs to be a barrier there, or else the creative work suffers.

I think I can still recommend Book 1 of Korra’s Legend, but really, it’s best just to go watch Aang’s Airbender stories.

Edited to add:  I ran into another Tumblr that reminded me that the group dynamic was better in Season 1, Bolin was better, and man, they really needed to make a team work like Aang’s crew.  They never really did that well at all in Korra.  They could have, but failed.

Korra’s Team

Man… that’s really the downer of all this.  It could have been so much better.

Edited again to add:  This article from Larry Correia is a great fisking of a monumentally dumb article that shows some of the mentality that I think pervaded Korra’s story.  Maybe not at first, but it seeped in as the authors engaged with the most rabid segments of the audience and catered to sociopolitical quirks of today instead of staying true to their own story.  To be sure, every work is a “product of its time” in ways small and great, but when a work of fiction becomes less about its own interesting story and more about preaching a Message, it falls apart.  This was the problem with Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land‘s third act, for example.

Aang’s journey was internally consistent (mostly, and notably, the Message episodes were the weakest), Korra’s was a mess of Messages and fourth-wall pressures, suffering from undue external influences.  It’s a good case study in what not to do, in many ways.

Ambigrammar

I’m fond of ambigrams, and have taken a stab at making more than a few in my day.  This is the latest:

Chiaroscuro Ambigram V2

I’m just putting it out there at the moment without explanation, though.  I’d like to see if it’s readable and interesting.

What do you think?

It seems that the trick is making the thing read correctly both ways, while keeping the letterforms appealing and at least reasonably consistent.  It’s hard to make an ambigram “font”, though this sort of font shows up often:

AmbigramSample

My designs lean more to the “tribal” aesthetic than the Olde Tyme Fontography.  It gives me a bit more flexibility, though it’s not always as readable.  It’s interesting to me to see how these might work.  They often try to “hack” our natural tendency to see patterns, especially with the little bits and floating details that might be important one way but best ignored the other way.

Sometimes it’s easier with more words, too… and sometimes not.  They can give more datapoints to help decipher the rest of the puzzle.  This one is for the Alhambra Speech and Debate team, for example, and some of it works well… other bits don’t.  A lot depends on context; someone on the team would be able to read it fairly easily since they would expect it to be relevant to their interests.

AlhambraSpeechAndDebateAmbigram

If you’ve a guess at what this latest one reads, I’d love to see it in the comments.  Thanks!

Updated with this application of the ambigram… and the word: “Chiaroscuro”.  Thanks, all!

ChiaroscuroBanner

End of the World of Warcraft

I’ve written about finishing World of Warcraft before, and I’ve written about business models more than a few times.

Alternative Chat has a good blog post up ruminating a bit on the potential that Blizzard has to take the existing World of Warcraft and blow it up, starting over with all the bits they want and jettisoning the cruft of the last decade.  They did a version of this with the Cataclysm expansion, which I’ve also written about a few times.

So, I just wanted to put my finger in the stream again and post pretty much the same thing I noted in a comment over at Alt’s place, and something I’ve written here before…

If Blizzard really wants to shake things up and leave the old WoW behind for a brave new world, they should branch the game.  Cut everything that’s presently in the game off from the dev teams (save for bug fixing), package it up as a “buy to play” subscriptionless game in the vein of Guild Wars, and bravely stride off into WoW 2.0 as their premiere flagship subscription game.

It’ll never happen, just like Vanilla servers won’t happen and Pre-Cataclysm servers won’t happen, but hey, I can dream.

Edited to add:  This amuses me.  As Jay over at The Rampant Coyote points out, “Buy Once and Play” is making a minor comeback.  As if it’s something radical.  This industry is weird.  Even Forbes just can’t resist the satire.

Of Pocketbooks and Payments

Having been unemployed now for the better part of a year, scrambling for odd jobs and attempting a career change, I’m more sensitive than ever to the cost of things.  There are a great many rants that I could indulge in, but at the moment, I’m in a contemplative mood.

Y’see, payment models are part of these MMO games that I write about here and there.  Syl has a new post up that’s tapping into a bit of the blogging hivemind, which is buzzing about money again.  I’m of a mind that the subscription model is a very poor value for me, F2P is a bit better when it’s not annoyingly restrictive or weirdly monetized, and “buy and play” of Guild Wars and Wizard 101 is still my favorite model.

Thing is, what little gaming I do these days is either on my smartphone with something like Slingshot Braves (which I’m still not spending money on, though I’d like to, in a way) or Flight Rising on my PC.  In the former, I’d probably pony up a few dollars if I could buy specific gear I want, and in the latter, I don’t mind advertisements as the monetization vector.

It makes me wonder… has an MMO toyed with advertisements in their major cities?  As noted in Darths and Droids, of all places, games actually can benefit from some verisimilitude by having sloganeering or even advertisement in big cities.  The setting has to make sense, of course, and advertising isn’t always really a big money maker, but it seems like something someone might have tried, or could have tried.  The Secret World, or The Matrix Online, maybe.

Anyway, I certainly don’t begrudge devs their money.  I have my own money problems, and won’t pay for something that doesn’t offer me good value, but, as with Humble Bundles, I’m OK with spending money on games.  I’m not a whale, I’m a stingy consumer.  Offer me something worth paying for, and I probably will.  Try to manipulate me with stupid things like lockboxes, slot machines, subscriptions or other obvious ploys to get money with little effort, and I’ll just move on.

Content of Character

This should have posted on Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday.  Sorry, I’ve been busy.

Martin-Luther-King-01

I believe that games are uniquely and exquisitely suited to explore content of character, since games, as a medium, are all about choice.  That’s the nature of an interactive medium.  It saddens and disappoints me that so many discussions of character in games begin and end at the character creation screen, with a Politically Correct checklist and identity politics.

Games as a medium deserve better.  Gamers deserve better.

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