Outside, Looking In #PAXEast2015

Today marks the beginning of PAX East 2015, which sucks on multiple levels.

The first being that it’s bitterly cold outside. Two years prior, we stood outside in the BCAC waiting to get into the building, and it was cold. But that could be considered a heat-wave compared to what we’ve got going on for this weekend in New England. I’d be all like “Welcome to the North East, bitches!”, but I suspect a lot of attendees hail from the East anyway, and it’s not been a picnic for anyone on the Right Coast this year. #Solidarity

The second is that we’re not attending the full weekend this year, just Sunday — the benefits of living local. It’s the first year we’ve not gone for the whole show. First year we made the mistake of booking the hotel for Friday through Sunday for four people. We were bumped to an overflow hotel in favor of those who had booked Thursday through Sunday. After that, we’ve been taking Thursday evening to get installed into the hotel, and it’s been great.

Our group opted to go to Quebec for the Winter Carnival this year (WHY, GAWD, WHY!?) so the idea of spending money to attend PAX was kind of taken off the table. Plus, last year was kind of “meh”. As the years went on, we found we were spending less and less time enraptured with the whole “con experience”: see as much as we could; do as much as we could; all for as long as we could. Last year saw us leaving the convention center in the later afternoon, ordering sushi takeout for the hotel, and playing Pathfinder: The Adventure Card Game for the rest of the night.

But now that the event — “our PAX” — is starting up (people are lining up right now, in fact) and I’m seeing the Tweets, it’s kind of surreal in a way. Of course there’s a lot of events that people talk about online that I just kind of notice and then pass over, but I know this event. It’s my event. I’ve been a part of it as a participant for as long as it’s been happening in Boston, and this year when I’m not…it’s weird. Like an out of body experience.

I suppose that’s actually a good thing, since last year I was seriously questioning whether or not I would even want to go back; I know now that yeah, I do. I don’t know that it’s for a particular love of the community (I’ve kind of let that ship sail to it’s own doomed end), but there’s not a lot of conventions like this around here that speak to me and my culture, so I feel that I’m too disconnected from a part of my identity by not going. This all just means that next year we should be recharged and ready to get back into the swing of things after this year’s vacation.

Better, But Not Good Enough

A lot of my topics lately seem to bridge the gap between my childhood and my current adulthood, which I’m going to pin on two things. The first being my years of reflection on how where I was brought me to where I am. The second is because of my daughter.

Through no official railroading, my daughter is very much my daughter. In most ways, she’s far more like me than she’ll ever be like her mother, which I’m sure is sad for my wife, but is a joyful thing for me. Oddly enough, I always knew that if I did have any children, there would be only one, and it would be a girl; like, “steadfast resolution” knowing, not just a vague feeling that 50% of the results happen 100% of the time. And in this knowledge I knew she’d be like me, but better. I’d be able to help her to enjoy the things I enjoyed (if she chose to), but also to be a better person than I was, and better than the people who were around me. She would have my hindsight on her side, so I could help her learn from my experiences and my mistakes. What I didn’t count on, though, was that most of anyone’s life experiences are outside of their control.

Last night, my daughter and I got to talking about her interest in animation, and how she wasn’t “getting” the 2D animation software we bought her. She felt that she had a better grip on 3D animation concepts, so I showed her some of the stuff I had in Unity (which I knew where to find, not what limited knowledge I had about the subject). We got to talking about anime and her drawing, writing, and her text-messaging role-playing with her friends when I suggested she try an actual role playing game with them, since they were basically doing that anyway but without any formal rules.

“I don’t really have that many friends, though,” she said. I told her that she’d named more than enough people to put together a party, but understood instantly that that wasn’t what she meant. It was greater than that.

My daughter isn’t a crowd follower, which is something all parents say when they want people to think that their kids stand out. My daughter doesn’t stand out. She hangs back. Her talents are hers and no one else’s; it takes days of cajoling and tempered feedback to get her to show us, her family, any of her work. She said last night that she’d like to try acting in a school play or something, but felt too overwhelmed by her stage fright. She has good friends, like I did, but isn’t popular. As far as I know, however, she’s not bullied. She admits that while she’s not close to a lot of people, she’s at least friendly with them, and they to her.

I suggested that maybe when she goes to high school next year she could see if they have a role playing game club or something. Maybe if they didn’t, she could start one. She liked the idea, but then I realized something this morning: life in the geek-o-sphere isn’t really improving like I had hoped and assumed it would.

My thought was that most troubles experienced by a society occur as the vanguard makes its way into the mindset. People don’t like change, and resistance can be ugly as people vehemently fight back and forth to gain ground for their cause. Over time, though, as the ideas remain present — through contested — newer generations become used to them, and more accepting of them. Eventually, if we’re lucky, those ideas become so commonplace that we think of the time when they were railed against as “backward”.

So I had thought that because of the sheer momentum of geek culture rising from a niche community to a multi-billion-dollar worldwide juggernaut in a relatively short amount of time, the crap I had to deal with as a kid, and the crap we are dealing with now as adults, would fall away as our children are raised in a world where geek culture is so pervasive that they wouldn’t know any different. Liking video games, role playing games, cosplay, anime, comic books, or other affectations would just be something that one does, like watching movies, riding a bike, or eating spaghetti — age, gender, racially neutral activities that we don’t think of as being the domain of any one demographic. In addition, I’d hoped that geek parents raising geek children would help guide them so that while we probably won’t see equality in the community in this generation, the next generation would be on surer footing.

I don’t know now if that will be the case. After suggesting that my daughter look into a role playing club in high school, I had a small panic attack. Was that too geeky for high school culture? Was I suggesting my daughter bury herself deeper in this culture that was financially mainstream, but not entirely culturally mainstream during her most important years of social growth? How would she feel if there was a club, and she walked in and was the only girl there? How would she be treated? Would she stay and stick it out, or would she simply not return with her interest dashed? I didn’t have faith in my predictions any more, and I realize that’s both because of my experiences at that age, in a different time, but also because I don’t know that the next generation has bothered to improve.

When brushing my teeth this morning, I thought about it. Watching a lot of Cartoon Network, I sometimes see commercials for GameFly, the video game mail order rental service. On occasion I thought, “Why do they just show kids? Don’t they know the demographic majority of gamers are older?” Of course, it’s a commercial aimed at the network’s primary (on paper) demographic, so I can’t get too upset. But today I realized something far worse: all of the kids in those commercials are boys. Targeting kids I can now understand, on the Cartoon Network, but GameFly can’t even bother to represent the real demographic composition of the community. Are they lazy, ignorant, or are we working harder at being both than we are at making sure our kids grow up with a better experience than we did?

We can only take these things one day at a time. I offered to run a simple, custom RPG game system adventure just between my daughter and me so she could get an idea for how it feels to play these kinds of games. We also talked about her previous class in 3D design, her upcoming Unity class, and her 3D modeling class at Harvard this summer (yes, I am name-dropping so I can say “my daughter is going to Harvard”). She’s excited about the fact that the high school offers a 3D modeling course for a semester, and wondered if there was a club at the school for that as well. I didn’t have to suggest that if not, she could try and start one, because I could see her thinking about that very thing.

Return of Dragonman; Weird Dreams

Return of Dragonman

Normally I’d recount the whole D&D session from last night, except that it was relatively uneventful.

The party moved into the next cavern, where they found three berserkers (“…beserkers…”) and the dwarf’s old friend Langdedrosa Cyanwrath. The half-dragon was pleased to see Gina and wanted a re-match, so he instructed the berserkers to leave her to him.

Over the course of the battle, the dwarf and the monk were downed, but got back due to some long-distance healing efforts by the bard and and druid. The beserkers were tough customers, but ended up falling to the party’s strength. Cyanwrath, however, was too amused by the dwarf’s resilience, and opted to extend their rivalry through to another day, and he walked out of the cavern while the party dealt with is henchmen.

Weird Dreams

This is really just a place to record this for posterity, because I had a really unusual dream last night that I found amusing.

As far back as I can remember, I was at my aunt’s old apartment where she lived when I was a kid, and there were a bunch of people there — including a small dog that was really a demon who wanted to “bite a chunk of flesh out of [my] ass so I would bleed to death”. The dog was actually about the size of a cat.

At some point, I was outside in a neighborhood with…someone else…and the dog, who took to following me around and reminding me that he was out to kill me in the most ineffective ways possible. It wasn’t a priority, apparently, because he just followed me around.

The neighborhood was old, and reminded me of the old city of Quebec, with it’s narrow streets and tall stone buildings. I saw my father driving in the opposite direction one street over, and figured I’d best get home, but I didn’t know the way, so I…

…at some point I ended up in a kind of underground tunnel system. I had a map, but it was a gold cylinder about the size of a standard TV remote control. I had to find where I was, and then I had to rotate the cylinder around to follow the lines which represented the corridors. At a “T” intersection, taking the left path would lead to a dead end, so I took the right path…

…which lead to a horse ranch. Not like out west, but like the ones we have here in New England. It was sunny, and the ranch was a bunch of fields ringed by wooden post fences. I ended up at one end of a crude stable which was little more than bays for horses with a roof over it. I had to traverse the stable lengthwise, moving through these bays that were filled with farm equipment and — of course — horse crap. Lots of horse crap.

At the end, the stable opened up to a kind of drive through-sized opening beneath the roof. On the right was a wide open field. On the left was a woman who was working with a horse in another field. For some reason, I knew I should sneak around and not be seen, but in that open area under the roof was a pony, and the pony saw me.

This was less of a pony and more like a dog (the demon dog had since moved on to something else, and was no longer with me). He wanted to jump up and play, but I was concerned he’d give away my presence. I ducked down behind some barrels near the right side of the stable just as the woman in the field noticed the pony acting strangely.

Sure enough, she came over to investigate, and there was really nowhere for me to go. I told her I was trying to get to Nashua, that my map had led me through the horse farm, and that I had gotten lost. She didn’t seem concerned or angry, just…

…and that’s when I woke up. I have no idea what the hell I ate last night to cause this kind of a dream.

I Am Obligated to Talk About Crowfall

Perspective is a frightening thing.

A few months back, we got wind of a new MMO called Crowfall which didn’t have a name at the time, but which had a website. Some people I follow seemed interested in this game despite knowing very little about it, but I went to the website and took a look at what little info was available. This is what I found; no kidding, the opening paragraph:

If you’re here, it’s because you’re looking for something.

Something deeper than a virtual amusement park. More impactful than a virtual sandbox. More immersive. More real. A game where decisions matter.

We are, too. We’ve been looking for years, and we still haven’t found it…. because it doesn’t exist. Yet.

When I read this I eyerolled so hard I knocked myself unconscious. What hubris! Sure, the community has long and frequently railed against theme parks and sandboxes, but those are extremely wide classifications of “traditional MMOs”. The conceit displayed by these developers in claiming that they alone could come up with a product that would change the industry through sheer force of PR really soured me on anything they could put in front of me.

More info was revealed over time, and more people seemed to be getting on board the hype train. Crowfall started to pop up more and more often in my Twitter stream, and although I checked back often to see what might be setting of this new round of excitement, I just found more self-important rhetoric, some concept art, and some vague notions of underlying lore.

Yesterday the game started a Kickstarter campaign, and they quickly crested the 50% mark. Holy hell. What are people seeing that I wasn’t seeing here?

Turns out, a lot. Or, at least, the stuff that really mattered.

The team is fronted by a duo of industry veterans, one of which had worked on Wizard 101, Pirate 101 and Shadowbane, and another who had worked on Ultima Online, Star Wars: Galaxies, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. I’ve played all of those (except Shadowbane) and have enjoyed them all. Then I learned that they have Tully Ackland as a Designer (Warhammer OnlineSWTOR), and nabbed Raph Koster as a Design Consultant (every MMO I’ve really, really loved, and MetaPlace – MayItRestInPeace). Uh…

I read the Kickstarter page. Same hubris, but as I progressed down the page, I started picking up what they were putting down. Procedurally generated, time limited worlds? Persistent housing zones? PvP?


Yeah, Crowfall is being marketed as a PvP-centric game. That’s usually the nail in the coffin for me. I am OK with PvP in the Warhammer Online vein, but that comes with big asterisks because the stars have to align perfectly for me to actually enjoy it. Otherwise, it’s a big turn off — I’m looking at you, ArcheAge. I’m not a fan of being the source of someone else’s fun, especially when it results in having to hand over my fun in the process.

And yet…like I said, I really enjoyed WAR’s PvP. I was in a PvP guild at the time, and always had people to run with. And there was always some kind of unorganized siege in the oPvP areas that I could jump into. Not being singled out for a beating by a group or higher level players went a long way towards endearing me to WAR‘s system, and from what I could tell through the Kickstarter page, Crowfall‘s system could possibly be very similar.

Still, the communities that surround PvP-centric games tend to be more…violent than your traditional bunch of forum trolls. I can understand that since PvP is usually an afterthought in most MMOs, having a new game devoted to PvP is going to cause PvP fans to circle the wagons in a fashion that is true to their aggressive preferences. But I’ve seen forums for PvP centric games in which the company employees went rabid on just the idea of PvE and those who preferred that style of play.

But what about other aspects of the game, like crafting and PvE? Details are very light, and I suspect will continue to be relatively light as the developers continue to appeal to the PvP community, but if they want to reach more and more people, they’re going to need to at least throw a few bones, so long as the sanctity of their PvP, guild and faction based gameplay remains their core focus.

At any rate, I threw $30 into the pot because it’s a B1P4eva, and that’s significantly cheaper than what the game will go for at retail. I figured that if the stars align correctly to bring back that WAR-time feeling, I could really love this game, and if that’s the case, I could forgive the conceited tone of the PR if they manage to make as big a splash as they are so sure they — and their growing legion of rabid fans — believe they will.

During this time I’m seeing a lot of RT’s by the Crowfall Twitter account, from people who are absolutely gaga over the game, and are especially attracted to the claim that this game will break the mold of MMOs forever.

This is where I swirl my brandy with a bemused look on my face that says “Oh dear, how precious”. We’ve been down this road before, with the MMO that’s hyped to change everything. Few have succeeded. WAR actually put public quests on the map, so change has been present, but incremental. Guild Wars 2 was probably the last claimed attempt to do something different, and to this day it’s become a divisive title which separates players into the “gets it” and “doesn’t get it” camps. Doing something different doesn’t automatically equate to doing something successful, something people understand, or even something people want.

Crowfall claims that it can do what it says it will because they’re not beholden to a publisher who’ll want to shape it into something more “commercial”, but that can work against it as well by appealing too strongly to the disenfranchised solely on their dispossessed status while not actually appealing to what they like. The message that Crowfall will be different might be laying it on too thick; the rule of writing — show, don’t tell — is really where the developers should be focusing their attention. Don’t tell us that you  can do better than 20 years of MMOs; show us early, show us often.

I think Crowfall will be great for the hardcore PvP crowd, but in order for the game to be really relevant to the larger MMO community, it’s going to need to throw a wider net and convince non PvPers that there’s something there they should check out. Otherwise, they’ll be no more relevant than WAR, throwing out a few good ideas that the industry adopts for their next sandbox or theme park game, or nothing more than a story generator like EVE Online.

My bottom line, though, is that I’m increasingly interested in the game, but still put-off by the intense ego behind the PR materials. I think the developers are either going to grow into their britches, or they’re going to find them on fire should they not be able to cash the checks that their promo materials are writing.

am looking forward to it, now that there’s slightly more information available able it, but I’ve never been one to obsessively digest any and all information about a game until I have it in front of me, so time will have to tell how the game turns out.

The Social Animal

Driving to work this morning, I was in traffic behind a car that was sporting a “13.1” and “Run” stickers in the window. I guessed (no doubt correctly), that the owner of this vehicle likes to run. I don’t know what to do with this information, but for the owner of the car, it’s important enough to him or her (or them) that strangers know that he or she (or they) like to run.

Reading through articles or watching news, you’d think that “social media” suddenly made people less inhibited with their personal information. Twitter was original looked down upon as “navel gazing” and most pundits couldn’t see the value in learning about what some random stranger was eating for lunch that day. We’ve always been social animals, of course, which is how we are able to make living in cities work, or how we make work work, but on an individual level, we’ve never shied away from providing unsolicited insight into our personal lives.

We’ve all seen the “stick figure family” decals people put on their cars. These are a great example because at the bare minimum they’re letting strangers know that they have a spouse, some kids, maybe some pets, but beyond that there are layers of information there. The owner wants you to know that they love their family so much (maybe more then people without the stickers) that they’re willing to telegraph their nuclear family composition to strangers. Most of those stickers aren’t even just male, female, children, or pet stickers. They’re mother and father with briefcases, or children with soccer balls or dancing equipment. Not only are these sticker owners proud of their family, they want people to know very specific things about their family.

Another example is the “Baby on Board” plaques that were obnoxiously ubiquitous in the 90’s. At first blush you’d think that because the shape and color represent road signs used to notify motorists of something important that their sole purpose was to passive-aggressively ask other drivers to be careful around the car bearing the sign. But let’s face it: if someone is in the process of causing or participating in an accident, they don’t usually have the luxury of selecting which other cars they’re going to involve in their disaster. Yes, technically the signs can be used to be polite, but like a lot of fads they become status symbols, in this case “I’ve had sex and have a child”.

We’ve been telling strangers all kinds of things about ourselves for decades, possibly even longer, through bumper stickers, political or construction signs we allow to be placed on our lawns, balloons we hang on our mailboxes to let people know that someone who lives there just had a baby (and whether it’s a boy or a girl) or that someone had a milestone birthday. The only difference between then and now is that the strangers we’re broadcasting too might have even less incentive to care, because there’s even less of a chance that someone who sees that you’re eating a salad for lunch is going to bump into you at the cafeteria and discuss your love of the food with you.

What really gets me, though, are the people on social media who openly and honestly tell people that they hate people. I mean people in general, not specific people, although I suspect that they wouldn’t be above getting that granular without provocation. The irony might be lost on these folks, but more importantly I think this is their bumper sticker, the same way that someone with an “Obummer” bumper sticker might drive through a die-hard blue state with a shit-eating grin on his face. This is really the gray area of this topic: why does someone go out of his or her way to announce something about themselves to total strangers? This is the exact same question that people have been asking when questioning the value of social media, yet it something we’ve been doing for decades through these subtle expressions.

Most of the time, these things that we tell people about are things that we’re proud of. We love our families, and want people to know that we are the kind of people who put our family first (good luck if they have to choose between saving you or their goldfish during a disaster) , or that they’ve got the determination to go outside and run when the rest of us are under the thumb of the vile Netflix. Political assertions are the worst, though, as many of them seem to be designed to insult the opposition as if the owner is perpetually spoiling for a fight (or willing to engage in partisan highway bumper-cars).

What the traditional methods of bumper stickers and yard signs shares with social media is a certain level of distance between the teller and the viewer. While it could be said that social media that uses our real names links our opinions with our identities, it’s by no means a certainty; social media still allows us to post from behind a pseudonym or another identity, or sometimes anonymously. In the same vein, slapping a bumper sticker to your car so you can tell the stranger behind you who’s riding your ass down the freeway that it’s OK to keep honking while you’re reloading is different from actually leaning out the window to wave a gun at them and confronting them directly. Use of signs and stickers and the “fire and forget” posting on social media are more passive, and I think that passivity — both in the telling and in the possibility that the viewer will just ignore your display — makes people more comfortable in releasing information about themselves.

We want people to know us, and not just the people that we’re comfortable with. Being known and accepted by those who share our feelings, or even to be recognized as someone in opposition for potential engagement. The idea that social media has somehow started the culture of “navel gazing” is totally incorrect, as we’ve been interested in sharing ourselves with strangers for much, much longer.

A Voltron of Development Tools

A “Voltron” is a unit recognized by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures* that indicates several individual parts coming together to make a larger, more impressive object. Over the weekend, I put together a Voltron of development tools for Unity that I believe will go a long way towards helping me put together a game of some sort.

Why Voltron and not just a Goku?

Development of any kind is a wonderful playground full of cotton candy stands, but also fields of broken glass.

Developers love to develop, and most developers have it in their heads (usually early on in their careers) that building their own suite of tools from the ground up is the one and only way to go; it’s kind of like building their own lightsaber in that it shows the world what kind of a bad-ass coding Jedi they are.

Later, while developers probably still like to develop, the idea of starting over from the ground floor every single time starts to look more like a needless time-sink. We might have made our own reusable libraries, but often time we resort to “middleware” — products made by others that has a specific purpose that we can leverage so we don’t have to write something that does the exact same (or similar) thing. Sometimes it’s just to save time, but sometimes it’s because we don’t have the knowledge needed to create something similiar to the extent of what we’d get by using middleware.

Three Tools For Unity

Last week I picked up two tools that were on sale on the Asset Store, and one over the weekend.

ORK Framework

The ORK Framework is a DLL that can be used to RPGify a new game.

RPGs are stupidly complex beasts. Look at Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder. Look at their core rulebooks. Those are pretty large books, and they only cover a fraction of what you’d need to know to enjoy the “complete” RPG experience. Computer RPGs are no less complex, making it the developer’s responsibility to code for every single system: character creation, skills and abilities, experience points, items, spells, equipment, combat, trade skills, conversation and interaction, quests…each one of those things takes a massive amount of focus to make it work, and to work together.

ORK Framework handles most of this. You create a control object which interfaces with the settings that you set through a slick UI for participants (players and NPCs), abilities, combat, items, and a whole lot more. Creating an RPG is as “simple” as filling in forms. I put “simple” in quotes because there’s a lot of forms. A lot. You still need to do the leg-work of flipping switches and setting values, but the benefit is that this is vetted system. If you create a sword that does 10 points of damage, you can sleep soundly knowing that all players will be doing 10 points of damage with that sword until the beholders come home.

Mixamo Fuse

I hate art. I’ve gone from reminding people that I’m a developer and not an artist to simply reaching the logical conclusion that I hate the fact that video games are a visual medium. I can only accomplish half of the project on my own, and it’s not even the half that sells the product.

The thing is, I need art. I need to see what I’m envisioning in order to ensure that I’m on the right track. All the coding in the world won’t mean bupkiss if I can’t get the visuals to work with my custom creature creation scripts. And that bugs me.

So I picked up Mixamo’s Fuse in the Asset Store sale. This is not a Unity plugin, but rather a stand alone program. It’s a simple program, hardly worth the full price, IMO, but what it allows you to do is to mix and match heads, torsos, arms and legs of humanoids to create a 3D model. This right there saves the time of having to learn Blender or 3DMax or Maya. Then you can clothe these naked bodies with a limited selection of apparel included in the app.

It wouldn’t really be worth much to have a model floating around the game in the standard “T” pose, so you can upload this model to Mixamo’s online “rigging” service. Rigging is the art of adding bones to the model. Bones, then, allow your model to have animations applied in ways that make the movement look natural. Normally this would be done in the modeling app, but for a lame-o like me, it’s best if someone else does it.

Problem is then you need to apply the animation, which isn’t free. You can buy an action animation from Mixamo, have them apply it to your model, and then download the whole shebang for $5 per animation. For a fully animated model, that can get pretty expensive. But they have a free “basic” animation pack, with walking, jumping, and turning animations, so I have something to work with while developing.

Axis Game Factory Pro

Axis Game Factory (AGF) started out as a game development toolkit developed in Unity. I had backed their Kickstarter, but it was unfortunately unsuccessful. However, the developers took their tool, reworked it’s purpose, and it’s now available as a one-stop-shop for “scene building”.

Unity has terrain tools, and they’re pretty good. But you also need to have the additional assets to throw down buildings, and you need to place trees and all that kind of stuff if you want to have a decent looking biome.

AGF lets you start with a basic landscape (empty, flat, hilly, etc) with a skybox, and then use their asset warehouse to throw down buildings, castle parts, primitive shapes, trees, shrubs, and flowers, and it’s quicker than what Unity offers. You can then import those scenes into Unity and have everything exactly as you built it.

Could I have used Unity’s terrain tools? Absolutely. I think AGF does a much better job of it, although there’s some glaringly obvious omissions (like no easy way to make roads, which need to be added using Unity’s terrain tools anyway), but that it comes with some assets for making buildings and can accept custom assets to expand the library makes it a pretty decent tool for creating landscapes.

What AGF is not is a game development engine. They ditched that focus a while back, but retained a “test” mode where you can run around in the engine to test what your landscape will look like in game, in either third person, first person, or side scrolling games. You’ll still need an actual game development engine like Unity or UTK.

[Note: there’s AGF Basic, and AGF Pro. Both will export to Unity. Pro only will IMPORT an existing terrain from Unity Pro. Pro also features the ability to import height-maps. Aside from that Basic might. To use Pro, you need to buy Pro and basic, and as of the writing of this post, Pro is on sale for 55% off, and Basic is $20]

The Mystique of Middlware

Last week when I was contemplating on the “morality” of something like ORK Framework. I don’t mean “morality” like “kicking kittens”, but rather whether or not relying on a form-building system constituted “legitimate game development”.

I decided that I really don’t care. Although ORK Framework pretty much turns Unity into RPG Maker VX in this respect, it’s still Unity, with all rights and privileges conferred. ORK Framework has an API, which means that while the forms can be used to define elements like weapons and consumables and create the combat formulas, accessing these elements via the API allows custom scripts to hook into the parameters defined through the forms.

This is important because in my genetics game plan, I’d need to create creatures via code, but which need to “play by the rules” defined via ORK Framework. I’ve not verified that this is actually possible, but I’m guessing that because ORK Framework is so comprehensive that the developers must have included methods of achieving this exact kind of setup.

Fuse and AGF are more content creation shortcuts than anything else. Fuse will be good for prototyping and maybe for creating some customized (but static in game) models with limited design options, but the Mixamo service may prove to be a boon, assuming I can get the cash together to pay for the animations. AGF will be a fun tool to work with to create the landscapes I need, although it’s mainly for outdoors. I’ll need something else to create interiors.


* A Voltron is not not recognized by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, although maybe we can petition them to include it.

You Can Take The Player Out Of The MMO…

A lot is said about “muscle memory” when it comes to getting back on the horse, and often times bicycles are invoked, and…man, this is a lot of metaphors for an opening paragraph. Let’s just skip to the next one.

A lot of folks I know used to play pencil and paper RPGs when they were younger. It’s what we had before these new fangled “computer RPGs” came around. But when they did come around, we adopted them because A) their fangle was new, and B) they allowed us to play RPGs without the logistics or time constraints of getting a group of people together in a physical space. When MMOs came around, we could now play with others, but it brought back the logistical nightmares of getting all the ducks in a row.

PnP gaming feel by the wayside for a while, at least down from where it had been in the 80’s, and I’ll go ahead and blame PCs and consoles for lack of any solid evidence to the contrary. During this time, our muscles developed new memories for how to “win” at CRPGs, while we allowed our TRPG muscles to atrophy.

With the resurgence of tabletop gaming in general, a lot of people are returning to TRPGs, but with some unintended side-effects.

The most notable is during character creation. Technically, we can blame this on D&D because it’s the font from which our modern RPG concepts sprang, but it was the CRPG that boiled away the fat and left the lean meat of what we know as “the holy trinity” of tank (keeps the enemy’s attention), DPS (does the damage), and healer (keeps everyone alive). Whether it’s indoctrination or nature, I don’t know, but this trinity just works. It’s a perfect setup for survival.

Because of this, CRPG players in TRPGs may tend to focus on ensuring that the trinity exists in their tabletop session. It’s not a bad thing, really, since it does work, but rather than playing what they might want to play, players might simply subvert their desires to ensure that all relevant slots are filled. They decide that they need a tank to soak the damage, DPS to whittle down the enemies, and healers to keep everyone healthy. So creation conversation invariably turns to “do we have class X?”.

Really, we’re metagaming at this point. I guess arguments could be made that what they’re doing is some kind of Ocean’s Eleven thing, but part of the TRPG narrative is often that the players come together organically, like if Danny Ocean decided to rob a bank, and formed a team from whomever was in the bank at the time. You can’t really plan that.

Is this metagaming a problem? Of course not! Maybe it’s a personal preference against min-maxing, but looking closer it also blatantly ignores the fundamental conceit of TRPGs: the unpredictability. In CRPGs, a tank is only effective because the system is designed to respond to taunts and threat generation. When the enemies have an actual intelligence behind them — the GM — the enemies don’t have to behave that way. It might make more sense for a semi-intelligent enemy to divide and conquer — or use the trinity against the players — by occupying the tank with one group, and taking on the healer with another.

The second side-effect is what I guess I’m calling “autopilot”. In CRPGs players don’t have to really worry about numbers because the system manages that for them. Want to pick a lock? If you have that skill, the system will let you do it or tell you that you can’t. Want to stealth? Hold down the SHIFT key, and hope you’re not seen.

In TRPGs, players need to actively manage their skill use. This means that when a player walks into a room, they’re going to get the standard description. If they want to search, the table might just hear them say “I want to search the room” and then go silent.

Now, a GM has a lot to manage, like NPCs, responses to events triggered by the players, and also needs to keep his eyes one step ahead of the player’s next moves to keep the action flowing. Constantly reminding players to use their characters should not be a GM’s job. Players have one job — to act as their characters — and the character sheets have those numbers and columns for a reason. Of course, GMs need to match those rolls against something, but I’d assume that if a character wants to search he should state it and know to make the Perception roll, or if anything the GM should at most help the player determine the correct skill to use in the situation.

Systems like Fate and Numenera are different in that they streamline a lot of the number crunching inherent in traditional TRPGs, so simply saying “I want to search the room” is as good as a die roll, but even still a player needs to play within the confines of her character.

Again, I think this goes back to the muscle memory of the CRPG where everything is taken care of, and it’s only the intent to take action that’s needed, whereas in the TRPG, players need to be mindful that they’re going to need to take, and have the ability to take the action without prompting. I think this not only helps smooth out the session, but also allows for more creativity from the players, and can help the GM stay on his toes.

The good news in all of this is that it really is like riding a bike. Players can get into the groove of the old school TRPGs after a little bit of practice, and there’s something important in that. TRPGs are more about player choice, and about bending the story around their actions as they move towards a goal. If the party doesn’t mirror the trinity, then it forces the players to be more creative. If they take agency in playing their characters, they can come up with those creative resolutions instead of just mechanically doing what the GM tells them to do. In the end, these are the kinds of things that differentiate TRPGs from CRPGs.

All About That; Shadows of Shallamas

All About That

When I was in high school, my brother was learning to play guitar, complete with lessons and all that, but I wasn’t super interested in doing the same. He had a few guitars, and at some point he bought a cheap Ibanez 4 string bass because why not? But he wasn’t interested in it, after playing around for a while, so I took it. I still didn’t have a super interest in the actual act of learning, so I just took the shortcut of dealing with tableture and banging on a few songs that I liked.

I stopped dealing with it about 20 years ago, and my bass kind of languished in the closet until my nephew asked if he could borrow it. I told him he could have it. I figured that was that.

But I really wanted to just bang around with it again, so when I mentioned off-handedly that I was considering buying a cheap bass to have, a friend mentioned that he had one that he wasn’t using that I could have. Well I couldn’t pass that up!

Now I have the uphill battle of trying to get back into this. I want to actually learn something this time because as nice as it is to be able to Rock Band some songs on a real instrument (I should say Rocksmith, I guess), not having the ability to know why or to find alternative fingerings for difficult stretches was something that did bother me.

That, and I need to re-develop all the callouses. I bought some flatwound strings this time around, and that’s a weird new experience. I’m used to the normal round-wound strings with ridges, but these are smooth and feel almost like plastic. Supposedly it gives a different sound, reduces the “sccrreeeee” sound on slides and unfortunate fret changes, and is also easier on the fingers.

Shadows of Shallamas

Our PbP session for Numenera has been filled!

The first official step is for everyone to get the source materials. I bought the Core and Player books in PDF form because they’re cheaper and I didn’t have to leave the house. The players should only really need the Player book, unless they want the whole shebang provided by the Core — lore, tables, representative creatures, etc.

After that, we’ll get together via post to hash out people’s characters.

During our previous to current D&D game, I started the characters out with a little PbP adventure that explained on how they actually got together as a party, and I’m working on that same scenario  for this group. Called Shadows of Shallamas, it’s a kind of murder mystery that I hope will allow the players to approach a common goal from different, individual angles. I’ve put down the synopsis and have created some of the NPCs on Tavern-Keeper.com, but that’s about as far as I can go without knowing how the character’s will be starting the game.

The Presence

This is the Mega Post, the nexus of purpose, concern, and reality. Cue dramatic music, and the fog machine.

About Me

Despite knowing better, I don’t have a problem discussing myself on the Internet. A lot of people feel the same way, although they would if you cornered them in real life. I think the same reason people are dicks on the Internet — anonymity, not always knowing where your contacts are in relation to you, strangers — is the same reason why people who aren’t interested in being dicks can open up about themselves. Standing face to face with another stranger, even if you converse with them all day online, adds in another dimension of reality that’s very much like the reality we experience that may have been what made us hesitant to discuss ourselves in person in the first place. When we’re “talking” at people we don’t know, or people who are also comfortable behind the relative anonymity of the Internet, we’re more at ease (in some cases).

I used to be very introverted, but I credit college with having changed that about me. Living among strangers would have been terrifying if I hadn’t quickly come to the realization that these people and I were equals: all of us had the same opportunity to shed our old lives and reinvent ourselves in a new environment to rid ourselves of the personalities and quirks we knew were holding us down. It wasn’t an overnight process; I think it took all four years for me to reach my relatively Zen state of “whatever, man”, but I’m not as introverted — or as angry — as I used to be when I was younger.

That was compounded when I had a child. Before, my life was my own. Now, my life was someone else’s (not to belittle my relationship with my wife). I realized that everything I did was being watched, studied, and learned from. My actions were learning experiences; my beliefs were templates for the formation of someone else’s values. I had a responsibility to make my life matter because in my own small way, I was carving out a chunk of the world my child would inhabit and inherit.

A lot of my writing over the past several years has been focused on “community”, and specifically the gaming and geek community because that’s where I live. It’s my hobby and a part of my identity. My brother in law is a professional brewer, and he talks about beer like he’s going to run out of it at any second, and while I’ve come to appreciate beer, I don’t share his enthusiasm. In turn, he doesn’t share my enthusiasm for gaming and geekery (although his sons do). Everyone has something they hold dear, and when my daughter started showing an interest in Minecraft and anime, I knew that my responsibility had to take on a whole new dimension. Not only did I have to make sure she gets her vitamins and does her homework, but I have to ensure that this geek-in-training grows into a community that treats her like a human being and judges her on her enthusiasm, not her experience or gender.

Most of my posts had been about begging the community that was within the sound of my…posts…to consider why we’re in this community. No one (aside from reporters, soldiers, and doctors) runs towards a place they’d rather not be, and our presence in this space always told me that the geek community wanted to be here because geekery was part of their identity just as it is part of mine. The act of being here meant something good to everyone. But there’s such poison in this community, of the type you’d expect to see if a country was under siege by a contingent that wanted it wiped from the map. To this day I cannot fathom how so many people can claim to love this community, and yet not accept that their behavior is destroying it.

So the focus on the community had always been important to me because I know that I want to do better, and to hang out with people whose company I enjoy, who enjoy my company, and with whom I have this culture in common. I always felt that these artificial demarcations we raise between platforms or genres or regions or skill sets or age or gender are truly just that: artificial. We as humans want companionship and understanding and acceptance, but for some reason it’s more important that we’re seen as being right than we are in actually being right. It’s never been more poignant than when someone believes they’re in the right when they’re neck-deep in being wrong. Make no mistake…there is a right and a wrong, and it transcends the geek community.

Before anything else that we claim to be, we’re born into this world as a member of a single community: the human race. We don’t learn about gender, religion, or nationality, or skin color, sexual preference, PC or console, Xbox or Playstation, or any other “bucket” we inhabit until much later. Sadly, I think that humanity is the first thing ejected from our identities as we strive to rarefy ourselves to fit in and to stand out. We won’t get noticed if the best we can claim for ourselves is that “we’re a decent human being”, and yet that’s exactly what I focus on so often: the humanity or it’s lack in how we treat one another in this community.

About Me and You

No one can possibly get along with everyone. With billions of people on the planet, each of which has their own unique set of genes, and having each experienced their own unique life, there’s going to be people who become naturally opposed to one another. As sad as that is to consider, it’s inescapable.

Of course, I (and others in my generation, and those older than I am) remember the days when finding people who share our interests wasn’t easy. You mostly found one another by chance, or if you had the resources, could get yourself to a meeting of like minded people. Maybe that’s why going to church has declined. It used to be a sure-fire way to find people you can relate to, but now common interests are only one subreddit away (may gawd have mercy on our souls).

Don’t get me wrong: it’s exciting to have access to the planet’s largest Rolodex without having to get up from the couch. I’ve made contact with legions of people that I would never have found 25 years ago when being a geek wasn’t anywhere near as cool as it is today. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone I’ve come across fits into my personal puzzle.

Despite my high-minded calls for everyone to get along, I’m not a paragon of kyumbaya. I get angry at people for reasons both legitimate and trivial. I get jealous and enjoy the occasional superiority complex. I bob up and down on the waves of social engagement quite often. I’ve threatened to leave this community (or at least the public eye aspect of it) several times now, but here I am, writing to you…assuming you’ve made it this far.

People are important to me. I can’t say that all people are important to me, but the net result is that I can’t back out of this community even if I wanted to — really wanted to, and not just claiming to do so for attention. Like I said above, geekery is part of my identity, and I care deeply for the people who make up this community whether I interact with them or not, get angry at them, or follow or unfollow them several times. That’s you. You are important to me. And if you’re not a member of this community and have stumbled upon this post and are reading out of morbid curiosity, that’s you too, because if we have nothing else in common, we’re both human beings trapped (for now) on this planet. That counts for a lot, believe it or not.

And The Future

Folks who know me know that I’ve recently (as of this posting) trashed my other blogs and proclaimed that I was done with blogging. Apparently, that’s not entirely true, and it bothers me both that it’s not, and that I wasn’t entirely honest, or at least was not clear.

I had been struggling with “keeping up with the Joneses” on levelcapped.com. I wanted to be important in the blog-o-sphere, and felt that keeping time with posts would help to grow a dedicated following. I had some success, but there’s a part of my personality that wasn’t accepting what I had achieved, even though I consciously knew that nothing I wanted to achieve was an overnight deal.

My problem is that I have reached the statistical half-way point in my lifespan. At this point, I have a job, a house, a wife and child, a car, a dog, enough money to be comfortable, and good friends. But it’s not enough. Rather, none of those things fills this need I have to accomplish something before I die. Many people would suggest that the things I do have could easily be considered accomplishments, and that’s a true statement. But layered on top of that is the anger about the frailty of humanity, that as far as machines go, we’re lemons without a warranty. If we were a car, we’d be deemed unsafe at any speed.

My mother died of cancer. A friend shot himself. Another friend was killed in a car accident. The frailty of the human condition has been thrust in my face several times in the past decade alone, and it’s made me angry that no matter how long we spend on this planet, everything we have ever done and more importantly everything we could do will someday be negated simply because as human beings, we’re shitty machines. Out of billions of people we’re just dust in the crevasses of this worldwide mosaic, and while we may be survived by friends and family, it only takes a generation for us to be remembered only as a leaf on someone’s family tree…if we’re lucky to have someone interested in our genealogy, that is.

I will admit that I have an ego. I am also selfish. I want to accomplish something that will make me feel like my time here on earth isn’t just time spent writing these long blog posts. I’ve tried many things: game development, novel writing, art, music, podcasting, community projects…but nothing has stuck. Despite my growing panic of not having accomplished anything, I can’t seem to gain traction in anything I try to do. Most of it is my failing, but sometimes I find that my enthusiasm isn’t shared by people I had hoped to entice along for the ride. A lot of things I can’t do on my own, but getting buy in has been difficult. Despite my claim of egoism, though, it’s never been about me. I just want to be part of something larger than just me so later on in life I can look back and say that I had been.

The demise of LC.com was part of the realization that it’s not going to happen. As a platform, that site was crumbling under it’s own air of self-importance. I felt that I had done as much exhorting of the community as I could possibly do; it wasn’t doing any good. The community continues to be rotten. My voice wasn’t strong enough, not far reaching enough, not important enough to make a difference. People don’t like being talked at, and no one likes to be confronted with accusations that they weren’t doing a good enough job. Hell, every one of those posts was hypocritical; I was never worthy of claiming that I had the right to post those articles myself.

So now I’m down to this one blog. It’s the catch all for all kinds of stuff. I wanted to get away from the drudgery of coming up with posts to garner readership. I was tired of the finger-wagging tangent my writing usually fell back on, and I couldn’t swallow just post about what I was playing over the weekend. I had no projects to sell, no excitement to drum up, and eventually realized that every time I had tried, those projects fell by the wayside. I was an over-reliable promoter and unreliable producer. I couldn’t expect anyone to want to work with me on anything at that point.

As a complementary move I’m pairing back my social media. I prefer Google Plus still, but still wade into the faster running waters of Twitter. But I don’t treat either as I used to in the days when I was happy to just follow anyone and everyone who shared the same interests as me. I’ve unfollowed many people recently who just weren’t “doing it” for me, either because of a lack of engagement or because they weren’t ever talking about anything that interested me that I could share in. I’m only following 85 people on Twitter, and at least half of those are “official” accounts for companies and services. I have a paltry 480 followers, and my weekly digest of people who’ve unfollowed me is steady and unending.

This is a leaner life. In some regards it saddens me because I don’t believe that I unfollow anyone out of ill will. If I didn’t like a person I wouldn’t have ever followed them in the first place. But as I am changing, my priorities change, what I want out of my social media changes, and what I can live with changes as well. But this pruning of my social tree, so much as it ever was, shows that my willingness to participate in this community is waning. Unfollowing people. Cancelling my blogs. This massive fucking post. I’ve also written about how I’m having increasing trouble devoting myself to sitting down to play any games recently.

It’s uncharted territory to an extent. Almost my entire life has been spent in the geek community, but now it seems like less and less of a place that feels comfortable to me, and more like one that’s eager to show me the door. It’s not something that will ever leave me, but I’ve been spending more time doing other things as of late. Less interactive things. Slower things. Things that have fewer consequences, and fewer potential consequences. It’s like retirement, but I still have to go to work.

As much as I really don’t want to leave, it’s just feeling like it’s no longer worthwhile to put in the time outside of what’s directly in front of my face. I’ve got to come to terms with the fact that I’m not going to accomplish anything outside of living my life, and I can’t bear to watch as other people manage to succeed where I’ve repeatedly failed. It’s really easier to just sit and read or watch TV than it is to give it one more shot in the hopes that this time might be the time. As Danny Glover said, I’m getting too old for this shit.


Amazingly enough, this is the first post I’ve written with an honest to goodness epilogue.

I didn’t want to end this on the down-tempo, because in a way it’s actually liberating to not try and take the weight of a world on the shoulders. No one had ever asked me to, so it’d been born out of my desire to have a better community for everyone. Sadly, I don’t think the community wants to be better for it’s own sake. We’re headed for a catastrophe of Biblical proportions, with no one to blame but ourselves (despite the certainty that blame will be placed everywhere but with ourselves).

Now seems like a good time to start letting go, albeit slowly. I’m not that old, but I now understand the feeling of “passing the torch” to the next generation. I’ve kind of done all I think I’m able to do. I’ve helped shepherd this culture from the dark, wedgie-filled hallways of unpopularity to the multi-billion dollar juggernaut that it enjoys being today. That’s brought about some unique challenges which aren’t going to be resolved by my generation, or the generation behind me, as sad as that sounds. Instead, those resolutions will fall to a generation that’s more accepting and open minded than the dregs who can’t deal with their weak self-images in the face of a changing ecosystem that is increasingly marginalizing them in favor of wider acceptance.

I guess it’s all good, because it can’t be anything else, really. Maybe in a few weeks or months I’ll feel different, will rush to re-embrace everyone, and you won’t be able to find this post anywhere, but I never delete anything, just draft it. I may want to at least look back on this post and see whether or not I was prescient, or just a fool.


Tell your friends! Tell your neighbors!*

As some know, we — the Adventure Co. Brand Adventure Company — play Dungeons & Dragons 5E on Thursday nights via Roll20.net. We’re having a marvelous time, but I know that there had been a bit more interest in playing than we could accommodate initially, so I wanted to do something in addition to the Thursday night dungeon fight.

Scheduling is always a bear. Unless you’re single, have a spouse or S.O. who is OK with you yelling “Fireball! Fireball!” at Internet strangers during their DVR catch-up time, or simply consider vTabletop RPGing to eclipse all other concerns in life, making a commitment to be online for a few hours at least once a week is something you need to find a work-around for. That’s why I wanted to try play by post for this secondary adventure.

Play by post is what it sounds like: the GM posts an intro scene to one or more players explaining the setting, what you see, who’s there, and what’s going down at the time. As a player, you respond to that. The GM responds to you, someone rolls some dice, and the outcome is discussed.

I’m attracted to PbP this time around for a few reasons:

  1. We can have more people playing. While I’d like to cap the initial game at 5 players (we have three already, and are looking for two), there’s really no reason why we couldn’t have more because…
  2. Players don’t have to stick together. At the table, it’s difficult to cut out the “meta”. If I tell player A that she’s alone in a room and finds a powerful magical item, player B who is back at the tavern will instantly know this because he’s sitting three feet to the left. In a PbP setting, each player can have his own thread where it’s just him and the GM. Players can merge or divide at will, making it more of a personal story than a story focusing on a moving blob of adventurers.
  3. It’s a slower pace. While there needs to be some momentum to the game to keep people interested, there’s no immediacy to posting. There might be an agreed-upon time frame (check at least twice a week, for example), you have time to consider your moves and digest your environment like a gelatinous cube digests your chara…I mean…you know what I mean!
  4. It’s more descriptive and immersive. PbP allows for everyone to actually get into character, to RP as their character, and to present themselves without worrying that the funny voice they would affect in a live session would be more embarrassing than immersive. There’s also the opportunity to set the tone in each scene, to give NPCs and environments more flavor, and to really take the game out of the realm of just killing things and put it into the realm of interactive story.

And Now, the Fine Print

  • We’ll be using a site called Tavern-Keeper.com. I know we could do this on a dumb-forum. I know about rpol and some other sites, but TK.com speaks to me. It’s nice and clean and attractive, works well for what we need, and is designed around my personal philosophy on how a PbP site should operate.
  • We’re strongly leaning towards Monte Cook’s Numenera as the setting and system. It’s an interesting setting — Earth, a billion years from now, digging through long lost technology and dealing with eons of mind-blowing advances in science that makes absolutely no sense. It also lends itself very well to a narrative-driven game, focusing on the story over mechanics. Check out http://www.numenera.com.
  • It’s my first PbP game. Insert dog “I have no idea what I’m doing” meme here, though not entirely: it’s not rocket science, just asynchronous. We will make it our own. But I’m not promising Shakespeare here, but I’ll try not to let it devolve to Stephanie Meyer, either.

Who Am I Looking For

As mentioned, we have three people who are already on-board. I’m looking for at least two more at this timeI’m not going to preclude anyone who’s got a genuine interest, and standard “don’t be a dick” rules apply (we’re here to have fun, no rules lawyering, discussion not argument, etc).

I’m going to create a space at Tavern-keeper.com where players can gather to discuss the setup, character creation, expectations, house rules, ask and answer questions, and so on.

The cost of the Numenera Player’s Handbook is $8 for the PDF, more of the physical hardcover from MonteCookGames.com, Amazon, or your FLGS. If you’re OK with that, then OK!

If you’re interested, ping me on Twitter @Scopique, on G+ if you know where to find me, on Anook.com by the same, or leave a comment here!