ECGC 2014: Design Lessons from Pareto

Posted April 24th, 2014. Filed under

The following is some notes and slides from my East Coast Games Conference presentation.

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My name is Zack Hiwiller. I’m a game designer from Orlando, Florida. I’ve worked on a bunch of different platforms from the GBA to the iPad, from tiny independent studios to large ones like EA and Gameloft and on traditional retail products and free-to-play apps. Today I want to talk about how players spend and how that can inform your basic design.

But first: why? Why talk about spends and design in the same breath? Aren’t the monetization metrics something for the producers and suits to worry about and design the land of limitless creativity? Sometimes. It depends. There are infinite ideas out there and you have a limited time on this Earth to make games. If you work for someone, then you need your game to make a profit at the end of the day to keep making games. If you are making games as a hobby, you may want to be able to choose w
hich ideas from that infinite set get people involved enough to want to give you money for it. It’s one method of validation.

Today’s talk is going to cover three areas. First, I’m going to give a quick primer on statistical distributions, just so no one is lost. Next, I’m going to go through some simulations of thousands of theoretic games to see what their inputs, sometimes using real world data, can tell us. Finally, we are going to try and sum up some design lessons that we can glean from what we found.

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Caveat: I’m not a statistician. Someone once said that a little knowledge is much more dangerous than ignorance and it is true. I could be completely off-base. Some elements of this talk come with huge caveats and I try to identify them as I go, but I may forget to mention them. One major one is that I’m using bounded distributions for what in real-life is unbounded. I know this. I’m not trying to come up with “the answer” but instead try to visualize things in a different way to get us closet to “the answer”. I think this is foundation for very useful research that can be done in the future, but I don’t pretend that this has any scientific rigor beyond the: “hey, look at this a bit closer”.


There’s been a lot of talk in the past decade about “fat-tailed” distributions and how they model real life phenomena. Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail is one of these, but I credit Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s books The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness in bringing the topic to the forefront. Mark Buchanan’s Nexus is also a great pop-sci look at the math and science of networks.

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Let’s say that you had access to a service that would get you a player for three dollars. You look at your revenue and you divide by the number of players and you get $3.25. This is what the industry calls “APRU”, average revenue per user. Since you expect $3.25 for a user and it costs $3.00 per user, you should do it right? That’s $0.25 profit. Well, maybe. It depends on what the underlying distribution looks like. On average, sure you will gain $0.25/user, but it may take a long time to get to that average. If your underlying distribution is what’s called “normal” (on the left above), most of the weight is clustered around the mean and that’s a likely scenario. If you have something like on the right, then that’s much more risky. Most people give you $0. Most $3 acquisitions will result in no revenue return. Now how certain are you to get that n+1th user?

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Here’s the quick recap on distributions. What’s above is an approximation of what’s called the normal distribution. It’s sometimes called a bell curve. If you take a bunch of samples of American men and graphed their heights, it would look like this. Most would be around 5’9″, but some will be very short and some will be very tall. Lots of things are normally distributed so we use this all the time: the lifetime of a lightbulb, an SAT score, the size of snowflakes, and how much cereal is in each box of Cap’n Crunch can all be modeled by the normal distribution. The law of large numbers even makes the means of every independent random variable follow the normal distribution. It’s everywhere.

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But it isn’t the only type of distribution. Above is an approximation of the Pareto distribution, named after 19th century economist Vilfredo Pareto. In a Pareto distribution, most of the weight is near zero, but there is a fat tail that goes out very far. Imagine if heights were distributed in this way. Most everyone would be 5’1″, every once in a while you would get someone 5’3″ or so, but don’t think you will ever get someone NBA sized. Imagine if the cereal in your Cap’n Crunch was Pareto-distributed. You would get two or three bits in most boxes, but somewhere out there would be a box with the mass of a neutron star.

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There are tons of things that are Pareto-disributed. Pareto came up with this when observing that 80% of the wealth in Italy at the time was held by 20% of the population, which is true more or less for most every society throughout history. But there are other things that are Pareto distributed like the number of links to a particular website or the power of Earthquakes. Most Earthquakes are very minor, unnoticeable without sensitive equipment. But every once in a while there is a “Big One” with great power.

There are vast differences between normal (or Gaussian) distributions and power (or Paretian) distributions. Whereas the Gaussian distributions have a steady mean and variance, Paretian distributions do not. Since Paretian distributions are highly sensitive to extreme values (the “big one” earthquakes account for the vast majority of the damages for earthquakes in the United States). However, Gaussian distributions often ignore outliers as anomalous. Think about it this way: if I’m opening a tailor’s shop, I’m not preparing for Yao Ming to walk in. He’s an outlier and I can ignore him.

One of the main differences in these two types of distributions has to do with independence. In Gaussian distributions, we assume that events are independent. In power distributions, we assume that events are interconnected. For instance, if I am already rich I have more opportunities to invest, which means I have the ability to become even richer.

But if a power distribution has no steady mean or variance because a Yao Ming instantly shifts the mean and variance, then what does that say about acting on statistics that use the mean or variance? This means saying things like the average spend of a user if the user spends are Paretian has little meaning! For more on this, see McKelvey (2005).

So do we just throw our hands up and say we cannot say anything about Paretian distributions? No. We have to find a way to work with what we have. If our models can incorporate the chance of these outliers then it can at least point us in the direction of the truth. By definition, we cannot account for Taleb’s Black Swans, but we can model the universe around them.


Back to games since that’s why we are here. Let’s do the simplest possible simulation that can be useful to us. Let’s say there are two types of customers. Morlocks are the jerks who download and play your game but never pay you. Eloi are the enlightened few who give you money for your work.

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In Experiment 1, we say that we have a game where 1 in a thousand of your users are Eloi, but these Eloi spend bank: $1,000 each. This $1,000 figure is called the ARPPU or Average Revenue per Paying User since we are only averaging the people who actually give us money. When we run a simulation of 1,000 independent games (independent in the statistical sense, not “indie”) each with 1,000 monthly players, we would expect, on average, to get $1,000 per game. But the results show a lot more variability: 38.6% of games never capture an Eloi at all and get nothing. 1.9% capture 4x or more Eloi as expected and make a great deal of money. Even with this simple model, we see that there is a lot of variability.

But we don’t have to use made up fake numbers. Swrve, the mobile metrics company, puts out great reports showing what games that use their analytics software are reporting. In the January report, 1.5% of total players made a purchase and the average that they spend was $15.27. If we change our Experiment 1 numbers to this and add the 30% fee that Apple, Google, et al., require, we have Experiment 2:

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This shows the distribution for 1,000 games. Most games make near the expected value of $0.23 per user. But knowing your revenue is only one side of the story. What about costs? At EA, when we were doing back-of-the-napkin calculations for profit and loss statements we used the heuristic of $10,000 per developer per month. But that’s EA. They have big offices with big time executives that take home big time paychecks. Let’s say that your team is super efficient and can get the same job done for less than $6,000 per person per month. Let’s say your team of four for your mobile game costs $23,000/month. We will use that odd number because it is a reasonable cost and makes the math easy when your ARPU is $0.23.

We run another version of Experiment 2 that adds costs into the equation. So using Swrve’s numbers and a break-even of $23,000/month, how often do you break even? Naturally, that will depend on how many users you have. Before, we were doing our calculations on a per-kilo-user basis. We can’t do that here so we need to come up with a number. I’m using 100,000 users/month. That sounds like a lot and it is. I worked on an independent game called Fire and Dice which was critically successful and was featured on Kotaku during prime game-buying hours. We had around 24,000 downloads total give or take. To give you a sense of scale though, Distimo says you need to get 23,000 users per day to be seen on the Top 50 chart. So 100,000 per month is somewhere in-between wild success and middling success.

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What we see in this experiment is not a single run of a thousand exceeded the break-even. One problem is the 30% portal tax. When we remove it, we get much better odds: a 43% chance of breaking even. The real problem though is cost. If you were to decrease the cost to $14,500/month, then you could be nearly certain of breaking even.

This is a very simplified model of the world. If we could increase the fidelity of the models, we could get results that better approximate the real world. One assumption that was overly simple is that players are neatly classified as either Eloi or Morlock. But that’s not even close to reality.

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There are as many types of players as there are players. If we could model the Eloi with a bit more accuracy, maybe we would come closer to what is the case in reality. In Swrve’s data, they break down the spending habits of players who do actually spend money into ten deciles. Each decile has a listed frequency of purchases and an average price per purchase. This allows us to make ten “castes” of Eloi and break up our model.

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Using Swrve’s 11 castes (10 Eloi + Morlock), we can get a little closer to something modeling reality. We run 1,000 simulated games at 1,000 simulated users/month each using the above mentioned spending frequency. If we count the $30 portal tax, you need to make $328.57/1000 users to actually make $0.23/user. If that is your break-even, then how often do you succeed? This is Experiment 3.

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In only 45.5% of runs, the game makes $230/1000 users. This is the amount you need to make to get $0.23/user without the portal tax. With the portal tax, the figure of successes drops to less than 15%. Interestingly, some of the runs collected less than $25 per 1,000 users while others collected over $600 per 1,000 users. If you had two games at your studio that performed like that, it would be tempting to say that one had an inspired design and successful monetization strategy where the other was crud. Don’t be fooled.

Design Lessons

So running numbers is fun and it looks like information, but what can it really tell us? I have six lessons that I think are pertinent:

Lesson 1: The more fat-tailed the distribution, the more you live and die by the Eloi (or, ugh, “whales”)

Experiment 1 had a vastly wide tail. A tiny percent of the users paid a huge percentage (all, actually) of the money. And those runs that didn’t capture one of those users were hung out to dry. If your choice is between having a lot of players pay a little bit of money versus a few super-users paying the lion’s share of the money, go for the former. It’s easier to acquire the non-super users.

One of the best designs that I think captures this principle is Jetpack Joyride. The game offers the normal “buy coins” monetization where the coins allow for in-game items. But one of the purchasable items is different. Called the “Counterfeit Machine” it doubles any coins you collect in the game. This means it has greater lifetime value when you buy it earlier. Priced at the store minimum of $0.99, it’s easy to reason that many players look at this as the cheapest way to get a lot of coins. Thus, it is one of their most popular in-app purchases.

Casinos may cater to high-rollers, but they don’t do it at the expense of the penny slots.

We used to have a great way for all of our users to pay us. It was called retail. It’s not dead. You don’t have to be free-to-play no matter what someone shilling analytics software or pushing their own wildly successful F2P game tells you. They might have just lucked into the right side of the distribution.

Lesson 2: The more users you have, the narrower your standard deviation and the less likely you are to win or miss big.

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Lesson 2 is similar to Lesson 1. Having more users reduces the variability and shortens the tails. This is an obvious lesson. Of course you want more users. You don’t get paid by what your average user pays, you get paid by what the sum of all users pays. But don’t let your statistics fool you. Your ARPU could easily go down while your revenue is going up, but decision-makers are still obsessed with ARPU as the magical value-per-user that it cannot be on a person-by-person basis.

Lesson 3: Reduce costs.

ECGC 2014.033Back in Experiment 2B, we saw how sensitive the break-even was to costs. Above is a chart that shows the likelihood of success based on different break-even values. If you design for the smallest valuable feature set, you can attempt to control one parameter that determines your costs. I think this is why that commercial games that are developed from game jam ideas turn out so well. See: 868-HACK, Don’t Starve, Surgeon Simulator, Super Time Force and numerous others. They did the hard part for free. It’s better to release something quickly and see how it does. It may be the best thing since sliced bread, but the market isn’t there for it. It’s better to lose a little than go all-in and lose a lot.

Lesson 4

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I was curious in creating this talk about my own usage patterns of F2P games. I looked through my emails to get an idea of how long it took me to spend money in Hearthstone and League of Legends. In both, it took me between 3-4 weeks between first log on and first spend. I understand that the Swrve stuff is measuring mobile F2P spends and I am choosing PC F2P games, so there’s a bit of apples and oranges here. But it follows a reasonable theoretic model: the player explores the free portion of the game, exhausts the content, and then pays to get more of it. That makes sense.

But that actually isn’t what happens. According to Swrve, the majority of players pay in their first week. Not only do they pay in their first week, they largely give up in their first week. Only a third of players stay after the first day. Only a sixth stay after the first week.

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A quarter of users pay on the first day. A third of users leave on the first day. What does that tell you about designing your on-boarding and your monetization items? This leads to Lesson 4:

Lesson 4: Your Users Have Options

Here is the embodiment of the mobile games market:

Between 1985 and 1994, there were 822 games released for the Nintendo Entertainment System. This is considered by many in my generation a golden age of gaming. There were 822 games released playable on mobile phones last week. There are 400,000 apps on the Google App Store. Players have these, Netflix, Facebook, Amazon Prime, Skype, Twitter, and this thing I’ve heard good things about called “outside”. What do you provide that these do not? That you provide a functional okay experience isn’t enough.

Lesson 5

Below is a list of results from the 2013 NFL season (give or take 1 game):

ECGC 2014.041NFL teams spend millions and millions of dollars to get additional wins. And we create great narratives based on these figures. For instance, the Kansas City Chiefs started off an amazing 9-0, but then struggled after some injuries to key pass rushers and finished out the season 2-5. In the same list you have the 0.750 New England Patriots with their future hall-of-fame coach Bill Belichick and their future hall-of-fame quarterback Tom Brady and you also have the hapless 0.250 Cleveland Browns who rotate staff so fast that they have a temp agency on speed dial.

There’s only one problem with this list. It isn’t real:

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The results are actually the results of an Excel simulation I ran on my computer where seventeen teams each played each other once in a coin flipping contest where each had a 50% chance of winning. Team A (the Patriots) didn’t have a base rate any higher than Team E (the Browns). We would feel silly applying those same narratives from above to my coin flipping simulation.

Lesson 5: Be Lucky.

There is variance in the world. And sometimes it makes things that are random look like they have order. But that order is decided post-facto. This makes it dangerous to try to copy the successes of others and expect that it will lead to your own success. Sometimes people are just really good at flipping heads. All you can do is keep playing and hope that it is you next time.

I didn’t want to end on something so fatalistic, so I have one more:

Lesson 6: Sometimes we live in Pareto’s world, not Gauss’.

It’s tempting to use Gaussian analysis on everything because it applies quite often, it’s what we’ve learned in school, and the math is so easy. But it is vastly inappropriate for many things, especially things that don’t exhibit independence. By understanding how this works, we can craft our designs in a direction that gives us a better chance of being sustainable and successful.

Screenshot Saturday #4

Posted April 19th, 2014. Filed under ,

It doesn’t look much different this week, but that’s okay. It’s finals time in my graduate classes and most of the work has been on implementing the ten different card types, which is now done but for bug-fixing and which doesn’t show up in screenshots.


Screenshot Saturday #3

Posted April 12th, 2014. Filed under ,

Missed #2. I’m doing this game in 45-minute/1-hour bursts so I make small but constant progress. It’s a Unity conversion of a card game I’ve made in physical form for a contest. It’s turning out okay, but I need an artist. screenshotsaturday3

Screenshot Saturday #1

Posted March 29th, 2014. Filed under ,

Playing with Unity


7 Grand Steps

Posted January 9th, 2014. Filed under

Enthusiasts of the construction and craft of games perennially seem to be stuck between celebrating the successes of titles that are popular and powerful commercial mass-market experiences and the tension that really only the “indie” microcosm has any sort of interactive simulation that carries any actual meaning that is transferable to the lives of the player. As far as I can tell, this happens for two reasons. The first is media envy. Some game makers want their works to be seen as capital I important and the media that does that well: books, cinema, songwriting, etc., seem to do that by actually being about something and trying to better the consumer’s life in some minute way. The second reason that we crave titles with meaning is the same reason we crave meaning from those other aforementioned media: it makes our lives better, deeper, and more fulfilled.

Of course, the discussion of how and why we derive pleasure and meaning from media is complicated and beyond the scope of what I want to discuss here. My point in bringing it up is to frame that we seem to take a barbell approach to games: either our successful games are completely nihilistic (Halo, League of Legends, God of War) or they are highly directed to be about a message (Papers Please, Gone Home, Depression Quest). The middle ground provides difficult territory and seems to create dissonance such as the hamfisted shoehorning of charged imagery into Bioshock Infinite or the middle-school doodling of Metal Gear Solid 4. We seem to react strongly not to a message or the lack of one, but to the expectations of message. In the case of where the mechanics suggest a message while the narrative suggests a different message, Clint Hocking called this ludonarrative dissonance. I think there is something to be said about another type of dissonance, where the mechanics create a type of message that is dissonant with expectations. Sometimes messing with expectations can be good (see The Stanley Parable or to a lesser extent Train, or even the recent comedy movie The World’s End), but often the practice just feels incomplete or incorrect.

7 Grand Steps, Step One: What Ancients Begat is a little independent game with an insufferably long title (so I will henceforth call it 7GS) that I picked up recently on Steam. It was nominated for an award at a recent Indiecade, but I had not known it made the trip to Steam until it popped up on a flash sale. For all intents and purposes, it looks like a Euro-style board game. I’m quite fond of Euro-style board games. They tend to have a depth and thoughtfulness to systems that I find fulfilling to play. 7GS even has a passing resemblance to the Euro game T’Zolkin as they both feature large moving wheels.

In 7GS, you play a lineage of ancient individuals who are attempting to better themselves generation after generation. They do this by cultivating tokens that represent resources and spending them to move their pawns away from the ever encroaching crocodiles. Tokens are mainly cultivated by having sex (complete with inappropriate tribal rhythm sound effects) with either your married partner or other AI players that are represented by creepy silhouettes. Eventually, you will “begat” a child or half-dozen. The children then have to be “fed” tokens which will increase their understanding of the various resources so that when they come of age that they can, in turn, earn more tokens. Additionally, you must attempt to land on beads that are strewn about the game board in order to make discoveries that either change the resources on the board or upgrade your family to a higher social class on the wheel. At a high enough level, you will play an unrelated Lemonade Stand game that manages the resources of your people.

The dynamics that this system creates leave a lot of odd messages to be absorbed by the player. First, additional children beyond the eldest are at best unnecessary. Sometimes kids happen (because whoops), but there is no mechanical reason to ever feed them tokens. You will only carry one child into the next generation, so it makes sense to only use your resources on the eldest as they will have the most time to develop skills. There will be messages generated about so-and-so’s jealousy, but nothing ever seems to become of it. There is no penalty for having a massive family because you never have to actually spend resources on them. Spend resources on advancing yourself or preparing your eldest kid. So have a bunch of kids or not. Who cares? They don’t matter. Is that the intended message?

Second is the meaninglessness of the tiers. I spent a few hours and a few generations climbing up from digging in the muck to leading a civilization. Yet the only benefit I seemed to have gained from doing so is additional work in the form of the civilization management slider game. One can yield bonus tokens by being a corrupt leader, but the game’s messaging seems to suggest not doing so as yields lower with higher corruption levels. It’s the one actual tradeoff that was evident in the game, yet it carried no weight as the point of being an excellent civic leader was unclear. It suggested that the right path was to do whatever the hell you wanted as leader because you will outlive any repercussions. Is that the intended message?

Finally was the message of mechanical toil. After leveling up out of the Copper age, I entered the Bronze age which seemed to great me with different icons, yet the same grinding tasks. What is the benefit of spending all of your hero points to escape an age? I don’t know. There are hints to a problem of an age, yet I played for a few hours without seeing any payoff. It seems like all the work in the game is pointless. Is that the intended message?

This brings me back to my original comment on dissonance. What bugs me is that I think this game has a lot of potential. Choosing which tokens to spend to move your pawns into appropriate positions is a fun subgoal. It’s a “core loop” that works very well (to use the industry parlance) surrounded by systems that both fail to provide meaningful ludic consequence and simultaneously provide odd semiotic impact. The idea of crafting generations towards one overarching goal has loads of promise (see also Rogue Legacy, Hero Generations) as it hasn’t been popularized in this sort of odd board game/RPG hybrid.

Part of what is attractive about board games is the abstraction of decision-making into incredibly discrete moments and resources. By focusing on just the interactions of systems with decision makers, board games have the opportunity to craft very salient moments of meaningful decision-making whereas continuous simulations like many real-time video games hide their meaningful moments in loops of dominated or rote task completion. There is room for digital games that create the same density of meaning as the best board games. And often they look like board games. An example that comes to mind is Introversion’s Defcon. But when the decision making is trite, dominated, or is filled with odd connotation, it seems to this player like a wholly missed opportunity. If 7GS wants to be a Euro-style board game, it needs to have more interesting and impactful decision-making. If 7GS wants to be a game about life in ancient times, the mechanics need to have relevance to that theme.

7GS is interesting and worth playing, but the next six steps need to support more weight.

Read in 2013

Posted December 27th, 2013. Filed under

2013 was a light year for reading mostly because of graduate school and busy life things. I’ve moved most of my logging to GoodReads. Anyway,

2013: 27 titles, 9,368 pages, 25.66 pages/day
2012: 45 Titles, 14,791 Pages, 40.52 Pages/Day
2011: 30 Titles,  10,163 Pages, 27.84 Pages/Day
2010: 36 Titles, 11,574 Pages, 31.71 Pages/Day
2009: 18 Titles, 4,960 Pages, 13.59 Pages/Day
2008:  31 Titles, 7,967 Pages, 21.77 Pages/Day



Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks (471)

As you can see from the rest of this list, this was a year of reading through Banks’ Culture novels. This one was far and away my least favorite. Any explanation of why would spoil the plot.

Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith (272)

I’m honestly a bit surprised that this got nominated for the British Fantasy Award. Really the only thing I could really get into was the New Weird elements. The plot, the dialogue, and the world was mostly forgettable. In my Kindle version, there were a number of odd usage and spelling mistakes. Some of them could have been on purpose as stylistic flourishes, but it just happened too much to think it was on purpose. For instance, Hellequin magnified 1000°? Did she mean 1000x? Is that a Britishism I’m unfamiliar with? And the name Hellequin is just cringeworthy when they do a flashback and you realize that is his given name and not a circus pseudonym. The last 20% of the Kindle Edition is a novelette about one of the extremely minor characters. Pass.

The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson (499)

Really not as bad as everyone says it is. Is this one of those too-cool-for-school things to hate on? I found it enjoyable, if a bit uncomfortable at times.

The Dispossessed by Ursula le Guin (400)

I struggled through this. It has the ambiguous political noodling that is characteristic of the sci-fi of the period, but I found the characters so woefully boring that it made it difficult to continue. An interesting book overall, but I bet if you ask me in a year, I will have trouble remembering anything about it. Lathe of Heaven was much better.

Excession by Iain M. Banks (499)

This was kind of inversion of the normal Banks flow for me. I was really engaged with the plot and characters for the first two-thirds and it kind of fizzled out at the end. I really like the idea of the “Outside Context Problem” as its a helpful label for a sci-fi trope yet still has enough potential to be worthwhile as long as it isn’t hand-wavy away. Isn’t it a good explanation for what happens in the Hyperion series eventually? And again, Banks has the best ship names in the genre.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov (256)
Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov (256)
Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov (256)
Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov (450)
Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov (528)

The first three books here are excellent, absolute classics of Sci-Fi and still hold up well today. The final two here were written decades later and are frustratingly bad. The finale is extremely unsatisfying because it really has next to nothing to do with what made Foundation interesting (the Seldon Plan) and is terribly formulaic. Asimov is unfortunately a one-trick pony by the end. There is always another layer higher controlling the characters behind the scenes. The Foundation controls the Galaxy. The Second Foundation controls the Foundation. To avoid spoilers, there are at least two more levels of hand-wavy control. It takes away all agency from the bleak characters. He even explains away the main character’s stupid Zapp Branigan-esque tendency to sex his way out of any situation that involves a woman. Major plot points are just assumed to be true and never tested. Dumb dumb dumb and detracts from the brilliance of the first three.

The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri Tepper (315)

Some sci-fi tries to tackle political or social issues to the detriment of the story. In some it fits so naturally that, if you are willing, you can ignore the allegory because the story works so well. This is the latter. Tepper is becoming one of my favorite authors. While the characters play into their stereotypes a little too well, there is a plot reason for it which is revealed at just the right time. I very much enjoyed it.

His Master’s Voice by Stanislaw Lem (199)

I had a bit of a double-take when Goodreads said this was only 199 pages. It is so incredibly dense with philosophical asides that I could have sworn it was twice the length. Lem packs so much into every paragraph and here especially spends such little time on dialogue and set pieces. This is the prototypical science fiction book about Ideas. Man stumbles upon what may or may not be a message from the stars and the government sequesters Top Men in an abandoned nuclear testing facility (I know, right?) to try and “decode” it. I found the musings on language to make much more sense here than in Babel-17. While I can see how many could find this dull and plot-less, I thought it was charming and thought-provoking. The aside about halfway through where the scientist lambastes the uselessness of science fiction earned him many points with this reader. This book could never, ever be successfully converted to television or film.

Inversions by Iain M. Banks (343)

An odd change in genre for the Culture series. Lots of nods to Game of Thrones here, but it’s a great Culture story by the end. Unlike the previous one in the series, this one has actually good characters with meaningful personality traits.

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross (335)

I was of mixed feelings about this book. It turned me off early by deciding to sound genuine about game designers and totally flubbing it (There aren’t lectures at E3 and no one says “Electronic Entertainment Expo”, they say “E3″.) And the game design ideas were things I’d lecture my students on as naive. But anytime a writer is writing for a job outside his element, he risks making those mistakes so I can forgive it for a good story. Unfortunately Mr. Peanut jumps all around and is largely concerned with casting women as inscrutable irrational creatures so fragile that they are willing to starve themselves to death just for attention. It was a little (a lot) tasteless. The middle third of the book changes perspective to a fictionalization of the Sam Sheppard case which is essentially irrelevant to the main plot with the exception of a few Twin Peaks-esque hints. Pass.

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks (288)

It’s amazing how easily I can be distracted by poorly-designed games in fiction – quidditch comes to mind. This novel really nailed the mindset of strategic play and how it affects a person’s workaday decision-making. And it’s a good sci-fi yarn.

Raising the Stones by Sheri Tepper (480)

Pretty much everything I look for in SF/F. The plot was lively and kept me interested. The characters were multi-dimensional. The sci-fi ideas made sense and served the story, the Big Ideas were meaningful and dealt with some relevant philosophical questions and there were just enough oddball things (like the Porsa) that the story will stick with me.

However, I can see this one being not for everyone. There are almost as many characters as Game of Thrones and it doesn’t seem like their stories will tie together…until they do. It also might be a little too magical for what starts off seeming pretty low fantasy.

Sideshow by Sheri Tepper (496)

While “Raising the Stones” was the best of the trilogy, I still enjoyed this quite a bit. Tepper reuses some of her plot points and can at times be a bit hand-wavy, but the societies she creates are just compelling. Unlike the first two, which were largely independent, you do need some knowledge of the events of those stories before jumping into this even though it is set centuries later.

State of the Art (199) by Iain M. Banks

I don’t think Banks works so well in the short form. His plots come off as pointless at this length instead of suggestive of a larger whole. I think he needs the length to make an attractive world for his ideas to sit and he just doesn’t get enough time here. The titular story left me feeling “so what”.

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks (411)

I really struggled through the first half of this, almost giving up and putting it away. It all seemed so deliberately vague and pointless. Luckily the last 10% of the book pulls things together in such a compelling way that I went back and paged through a bunch of earlier passages just to pick up on the clues. It’s rare that a book starts slow and ends strong for me; usually it is the converse.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (359)

While reading it, I thought it was fairly mediocre global warming sf with awful dialogue and characters. But after putting it down for a few weeks, some of the ideas keep creeping back to me. The yellow cards, the “calorie men”, the kink-spring batteries. There’s a lot of interesting stuff here even if the novel itself isn’t that satisfactory.

The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories edited by Jeff & Ann Vandermeer (1152)

I saw this massive anthology sitting on the “new” shelf at Barnes & Noble early in the year. Flipping through, it had so many of my favorite stories and a whole bunch I’d never heard of. Having earned my trust with previous Vandermeer anthologies, I bided my time for a Kindle version to come out as holding an almost 1200 page book night after night would be less than optimal, especially with the Bible-thin pages. It’s formatted perfectly, unlike some other e-anthologies I’ve tried, with a nice blurb about the author prefacing each entry. The anthology is organized chronologically, so you can really get the ebb and flow of influences over time (ghost stories, Poe, Lovecraft, King, etc.) Every anthology must be missing something for readers to complain about. I found it odd the lack of Stanislaw Lem or Philip K. Dick. But it is hard to complain about an anthology that has pretty much a who’s who of speculative fiction in it: Oates, King, Mieville, Gaiman, Barker, Butler, Kafka, Borges, Jackson, Chabon,. It even had a out-of-sorts SF story from George R.R. Martin that I kind of dug. I was turned on to numerous new writers as well. Highest recommendation.

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (256)

Hauntingly beautiful and a bit frightening. Painfully thick with metaphor, but nonetheless compelling and natural.


Going Clear by Lawrence Wright (430)

A page-turner. Wright paints an extremely vivid picture of the “prison of belief” from Scientology’s beginning to where it is today. He makes it quite clear (heh) how people are able to be sucked in and how innocent spiritually inquisitive people can be taken advantage of by a system that gets progressively more troublesome the higher you go. From the sad paranoid schizophrenia of the founder, to the sadism and terrorism of its current leader, the book’s characters and anecdotes get stranger and stranger. Where does the science fiction stop and reality begin? So many pains are made to attribute every claim made that the final third of the book is footnotes. Fantastic read.

How Do You Kill 11 Million People by Andy Andrews (83)

It’s shameful that they are charging for this. It’s a cliche-themed blog post with an interview with the author about how transformational it is. Let me save you the 30-minutes it takes to read this: politicians lie and “good” people do nothing. Well, no crap.

Quiet by Susan Cain (333)

Really interesting. It seems like a lot of the odd things that I thought were just personality quirks turn out to be fairly universally well-explained by the introversion-extroversion continuum.

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson (275)

I felt an overwhelming sense while reading this that the author hadn’t really set out to make any particular observations. You just join him in his stream of consciousness about the subject. Anecdotes are great (and there are some ones in here that pack a real punch), but they are best to support a thesis. You can’t just eat a bowl of sprinkles.

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver (544)

A nice review if you already know about Bayes and modeling, but mostly some good pop-anecdotes to review when someone quotes some junk prediction from the news as fact.

Why Don’t Students Like School by Daniel Willingham (180)

I became a teacher with almost no formal training about how people learn. So when I saw this, while it is “popularized” science, I felt I could at least glean some useful takeaways. The book exceeded my expectations and should be required reading for those who want to teach, not just formally but informally as well. The book debunks popular teaching standards like “teaching modalities” and at least gives me something better to hang my hat on than my kneejerk reactions “teach kids biology by making hand puppets because some are tactile learners” hokum. Besides debunking the silly, there are a ton of great little conclusions that have practical application for teachers of all trades, even game designers.

Nobody Listens

Posted December 3rd, 2013. Filed under

“Listen and Repeat” by Rachel Knoll is an installation of a megaphone in an empty forest in Washington State that repeats tweets that contain the phrase “nobody listens”. Yes.

The Last ZZT Disk

Posted November 20th, 2013. Filed under

I’ve written before about how my game design career was kicked off by ZZT, a low-fi game making utility that was Epic’s first ever release. Anna Anthropy is writing a book about ZZT, and I’m intensely excited and a bit jealous because I didn’t think to do it first.

I was having my weekly existential crisis about teaching when I started thinking again about how I learned to program using ZZT when I was 11 or 12. For nostalgia’s sake, I started digging around for my ZZT floppies (I didn’t realize at the time that my current PC literally doesn’t have a floppy drive, but that is irrelevant to the story). I realized that I had floppies of my games and some games I got off of the AOL message boards of the day, but I never actually bought a copy of ZZT. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a disk of ZZT to frame and put in my office among my other gaming tchotchkes?

So off to eBay I went. Surely there was a market for old shareware floppies, I figured. Actually, it turns out that there was just one shady guy selling a CDR of a bunch of old shareware titles. And there are a lot of hits for ZZT that relate to some part of an old Toyota Celica. That would have been the end of it as it usually is for my fits of nostalgia if I didn’t have a crazy idea: what if I just Googled “zzt order form” and found the shareware catalog order form that came with all the Epic games back in the day and placed an order? The worst that could happen is someone could steal my check for a few bucks.

So I did.

Today I received something in the mail from “Epic Classics” in Maryland:


He sent back my check along with the order form, which was unnecessary. I was willing to pay for it, at least for the labor of digging it out of a box somewhere and mailing it.

But I think the best part is on the back of the order form:


Some subconscious neurons fired after I received this and all of a sudden I remembered reading this article on Gamasutra over four years ago where Tim Sweeney mentions that his dad is retired and still ships out copies from the house where Tim grew up and where he started Epic. I guess that was true until a few days ago when I was sent the last floppy of ZZT Epic will ever send out. It’s exciting for me, but a bit of a bummer for anyone else who used ZZT to learn about games “back in the day” and would want some physical token of those times.

Isn’t it awesome that his dad kept up fulfilling orders for so long? It’s so anachronistic these days to personally ship a game to someone. Indies almost exclusively digitally distribute and the only ones pressing discs are large corporations where the purpose of its physicality is to attract eyeballs on a shelf in a store, not because of any distribution limitations. There’s no love in the physical object anymore. Every once in a while you will see a Kickstarter that includes a physical artifact which is a reflection of the love of an individual or a small group of individuals for their work. But it just doesn’t happen often. It’s nice to see here, even if it is for the last time.

So thanks to Paul Sweeney and Tim Sweeney. You are both cool folks.