“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.
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.
Project Horseshoe is a conference of sorts that happens every November somewhere outside San Antonio, Texas. This year, it was held in rural, scenic Comfort, Texas at the Meyer Bed & Breakfast. Limited to around fifty participants, it is able to accomplish something that I find unique and valuable and which differentiates itself from any other activity of its kind available: you are able to establish deep, personal connections with incredibly smart and talented people without the baggage of split schedules and corporate responsibility that you find at other conferences.
Noah Falstein introduced me to the term “charrette”, which is the perfect explanation of what Project Horseshoe really is. Here’s the Wikipedia entry on “Charrette”. Its definition is “an intense period of design or planning activity”. Horseshoe is centered around the concept of a “workgroup” in which a spontaneously formed group of folks gets together to address a problem which they define pertaining to games and society over the weekend. The tagline of the conference is “Solving Game Design’s Toughest Problems”, but I think that is an oversimplification. It’s more accurate to say “Identifying Game Design’s Toughest Problems and Taking Wild Stabs at Them” but that doesn’t have nearly the panache. It’s a ludicrously intense period of philosophic debate punctuated by silly activities and board gaming.
It’s not for everyone. I tell people that there are two types of Horseshoe attendees. Those who go one year and decide it is not worth their time and money and lifers. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. When I see people who haven’t gone to Horseshoe criticize it online, it usually goes something along the lines of “it’s not practical… you don’t actually solve anything… it’s a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.” I think all of those are fair criticisms. But they miss the point. The point of Horseshoe is not a game jammed version of scholarly research. The papers that come out of the conference are really just meeting notes and should largely be taken as such. The point of Horseshoe is the pride and excitement of doing impractical work and the harmony produced by people who drop their egos and come together to share in their own personal experiences with the subject matter that contributes to who they are. If you want to stand up in front of people and lecture about how right and awesome you are, Horseshoe is not for you. If you want to sit back and just absorb the lectures of others, Horseshoe is not for you. If you want to participate, challenge, be humbled, be inspired, and play, then Horseshoe sounds like it could be up your alley.
This was my fourth year at Horseshoe and despite many opportunities, my first chance of working with two of my favorite Horseshoers: Stephane Bura and Jason Vandenberghe. Our topic was about taking Jason’s wonderful Five Domains of Play talk which has great explanatory power over why we play what we play and extend that to the possibilities of why we continue to play what we play and why we quit. Three of us read psychology journal articles for fun so it was a perfect topic to latch onto and relate popular theories to possible explanatory behavior without the slightest shred of physical evidence. Nonetheless, we did a great job and I’m particularly proud of the model we are proposing. I also got the chance to work with some other great folks and between the seven of us, we had diverse enough backgrounds and experiences to challenge each other in creative and clever ways. The workgroup’s report will be up on the Horseshoe website by the end of the year.
Honestly, I don’t go to Horseshoe for the workgroups though. I go because it’s the highest signal-to-noise of any event I’ve ever been to. I get to have real conversations with some of the smartest people in the industry without having to schedule time with them or do the awkward business card dance. People who worked on Drop7, Triple Town, Artemis, Deus Ex, Words with Friends, and Everquest Next. People who worked at Riot, Telltale, Insomniac, and Infocom (Rest in Peace). Developers, researchers, teachers, writers, and the unclassifiable. Mostly everyone acts on the exact same level, instead of the master-apprentice form that GDC forces on us. And while I learn a lot every time I go to GDC, I feel that it is the fast-twitch kind of learning that becomes obsolete by the next GDC whereas what I get out of Horseshoe is more slow-burning and timeless. I’m inspired every year and have made some knee-jerk resolutions based on sleep-deprived resonance that I may come to regret in the coming months.
And who could ask for a more idyllic place to do this kind of work?
Highlights that are likely a combination of personal experiences and deeply inside inside jokes:
- A deer feeder across the creek attracted dozens of tiny deer that looked like small white-tails. They didn’t spook easily as they just chilled on the other side of the creek most of the week no matter the noise we made. Some ventured over to our side, but bounded away when someone would walk outside. There’s a great peace to be had in watching them eat and play.
- Frank Lantz gave a great keynote talk that was about philosophy, science and games. I think he mentioned it was going up online somewhere, but it was the perfect aperitif for what goes on at Horseshoe from someone who had never been.
- I almost get as much from reading board game rule books as I do playing the games themselves. From the collection that the attendees assembled, in waiting for open games in the evening I read the rules of a number of strange indie RPGs brought by Spry Fox’s Pat Kemp. I don’t know how much I’d enjoy playing them as I didn’t make the time for it, but as a sub-sub-genre, they scratch a very unique itch.
- A number of the attendees confessed in hushed, embarrassed tones that they are working on personal projects (the game of their dreams) within giant corporations. I told them to shut up about it because I tell my students no one ever gets to do that.
- I’m largely convinced that getting a PhD would be a detriment to my career in that it would take time away from creation and discovery. I’m still up the air here though.
- I didn’t know that Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches were an American thing. They were out as a snack during some event and an European friend acted as if someone discovered a new ambrosia.
- Tim Fowers’ Wok Star is a better co-op game than Escape.
- Giving early feedback on a friend’s game is amazing when you can tell it has loads of potential.
[Minor spoilers about Bioshock Infinite and some older games below]
I’ve been thinking a lot about pacing lately. My design background has been heavily skewed to two genres: sports and puzzles which don’t have the traditional pacing problems that other, more narrative genres might encounter. But pacing certainly isn’t limited to genres like Adventure and FPS, despite the problems being more salient. I’ve been thinking about this and it reminds me of the visual art concept of negative space.
The concept of negative space is that the elements of the art that are not part of the subject are important as well. This page discusses negative space and has some good visual examples that I won’t steal. Music has it’s own negative space (“It’s the notes you don’t play that matter” is an apocryphal jazz adage) as does film (though it mostly cribs from the visual angle of the concept).
The Japanese have a more concise term for this, Ma, which is more appropriate to what I want to discuss here because it more general and focuses on the “gap between two structural parts”.
If a game is a series of meaningful or interesting decisions, then our concept of “Ma” in games must be the space between opportunities for a player to make meaningful decisions. Some games offer no “Ma” at all. Look at Super Hexagon or Geometry Wars. These games are nonstop decision making such that there is no time to analyze the decisions you’ve made or prepare for the next.
In contrast, you could cite a game wholly without decisions like LCR or Candy Land, but if we wanted to be more honest and stick to games that do that for aesthetic effect, we could cite something like the sailing in Wind Waker or crossing the wasteland in the latest Fallout games. In these, nothing happens for a great while, but then something shockingly important happens to remove you from your stasis.
Of course, it would be silly to say that you should never have Ma or you should always have Ma. Fallout 3 and Super Hexagon are both excellent games in their own way yet their spacing of decisions is vastly different. The real question is: when do you want to leave out decision-making for the player?
Most often, this technique is used to create drama. The original Halo was full of blistering firefights. Yet the level “343 Guilty Spark” has almost 15 minutes with no enemies. Bungie wanted to introduce the “Flood” enemies as truly frightening, so they littered the level with traces of their destruction while not allowing the player to assume that opening the next door would be safe. When you finally meet the Flood, you are almost used to not fighting, so when the hundreds of enemies come streaming out, you cue back to the fear that the corpses and tapes of dying soldiers you have found and, hopefully, feel real fear. Of course, if every level did this, it would be incredibly boring. People play Halo to shoot things, not walk through set pieces to not shoot things.
Another game that used this for dramatic effect was Resident Evil. Early in the game you are walking down a quiet hallway when all of a sudden mutated dogs burst through the windows and flank you. Along with the intense music, this is a shocking rip from negative space to action. After this, no window or room is safe for the player.
The designers could have rested here. After all, it should be easier to create a bunch of negative space rooms peppered with ones with scares and use that variable reinforcement to keep the player terrified than to fill every room with something interesting. Many horror games since indeed have used that formula. But the Resident Evil folks did something interesting, at least in the Mansion section of the game. Every room in the mansion has enemies, items, save points, cutscenes or puzzle pieces, save one. For some reason, they left one bathroom as totally useless. But what this means is that since the player is constantly reinforced that there is something worth doing in every room, they must explore every room. The Ma occurs only in backtracking, leaving the actual level design packed with interesting decisions for the player to contemplate.
Games that take their cues from movies often use negative space for respite. You see this in action films all the time. There is a very “loud” scene with a ton of action, followed by a very “quiet” scene with characters talking about what had happened. Games, too, do this. It is almost a cliche now that if the player sees health and ammo pickups followed by a save point, they must assume a boss fight is around the corner. Likewise, after a tough boss fight, the player is usually treated to more “story” pellets and won’t have to make any tactical decisions.
But this is also the case in many analog games. In Chess, for example, during your opponents turn, you get to rest and strategize your next maneuvers. If both players played chess simultaneously, it would certainly be a different feeling game, would it not?
The Walking Dead game from Telltale did something which I found was really interesting. For the most part, the game is a theme park ride, taking the player from scene to scene with little chance of affecting the course of events sans the ludic cliche of dying and restarting. You have to constantly make decisions as to what the player character will say to the other characters. Most of the time, these are meaningless choices as all options branch back to the same event. However, sometimes, what you say amounts to the life or death of another of your party. Since you don’t always know in advance which dialogue options will be truly meaningful, the player has to treat most of them as meaningful. So while the true interactions between meaningful decisions is large, the players perception of the distance is small. It’s beautiful misdirection that allows the game to feel more real and the relationships more organic.
A similar use to respite is for contrast. A game may simply want to avoid the primary interaction with the game for a while to show what the game is like without it. Comments welcome for examples, although satirical games like Progress Quest and Cow Clicker get half-credit here.
Little Inferno is also worth mentioning. The primary interactions in Little Inferno are buying and burning things, yet you spend much of your time waiting for items to be delivered just so you can burn them. It’s a striking contrast that you would consider literally doing nothing so that you can earn money to continue to buy things which leads to literally doing nothing.
Minecraft. Is there any design article that can be written without involving that indie darling? Minecraft starts out with almost nothing but negative space. While you can certainly dig anywhere, there is no reason why you should dig or punch somewhere over any other until you have a goal in mind. In these creative types of games, the use of Ma is to motivate the player towards the creation of something. If there were no sensical goals one could accomplish in Minecraft, would anyone play it? It would simply be all negative space. No possibilities would exist, so no meaningful decisions could be made.
For Punishment / Incentivizing
Hockey has a mechanic called “the penalty box”. If a player performs various behaviors that the designers of the sport wish to minimize, then they literally have to go into a segregated area where they cannot interact with their teammates or make any decisions that would have any effect on the game for a specific amount of time. Nobody says that the penalty box is boring because it has to be so. That’s the point.
In League of Legends, when you die (and you will die), you screen turns grayscale and you cannot interact with the game* until your respawn counter counts down to zero. This is to both reward the player doing the killing and punish the player doing the dying. This disincentivizes the player from making risky moves that could lead to death because the penalty is that you cannot make any meaningful decisions during that time which is both boring and contributes to your team losing the game.
Bad Uses of Negative Space
In my opinion, simply to tell story or worldbuild is not an effective use of negative space. We’ve all felt the “ugh cutscenes” moments in Japanese RPGs or in the Metal Gear games. We play games for stories, in part, but we also play games for interaction. There’s no reason these two things have to be segregated and the use of negative space to separate “game” and “story” usually is to the detriment of the experience as a whole.
A particularly salient example to me right now is Bioshock Infinite. A few levels in, the player reaches a kids museum called the “Hall of Heroes” that rewrites the history of Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion in particularly racist tones. The point of it, I think, is to worldbuild and show how racist and backwards these Columbians are. As if it wasn’t obvious previously. To do so Irrational has two museum exhibits that the player walks through as racially insensitive cardboard cutouts pop out for (I guess) cheap scares. There are no enemies here (except one behind a closed door) and no pickups; the player simply walks through these long exhibits.
The problem is that if this is the respite before miniboss fights, it signals to the player that it is not because it looks dangerous and foreboding. If this is just supposed to be worldbuilding, then why could this not happen in an interactive way? Why have these long hallways with elaborate set pieces that do nothing? Having segregated washrooms in the arcade was effective and subtle worldbuilding. If the player stops to notice them, then they have done their job. But forcing players to notice them and wait for the privilege is just bad level design. Infinite has this in spades; large areas with tons to look at, but nothing to do.
I see this all the time when I am reviewing student level design submissions. Students create large sprawling spaces not because there is a need for it to be large, but because it is easy to do and makes the game look bigger. Just as your main interactions should say something, your lack of interactions should also say something. If your player is not making meaningful decisions in an area, there should be a good reason why or the area should be shrank or cut. I’m reminded of printing an email that has 10 pages of signature files under the substance of the email. We sigh when this happens and throw out the trees that died just to be etched with someone’s confidentiality notice or quote from Steve Jobs or Winston Churchill. It’s a waste. And while games don’t have that dead tree cost, waste in games has its own cost.
People’s leisure time is valuable. They can choose to spend it watching TV, reading books, playing softball, juggling, or any of millions of other things. If you are a lucky enough for someone to have invested their leisure time in your game, you have a responsibility of using that leisure time to the most value you can manage. Your players chose to spend their leisure time on interactivity. Unless there is a good reason why, you have a responsibility to provide them value for their investment and trust by giving them that meaningful interactivity.
I’m not at GDC.
That’s not particularly news, since I’ve missed many GDCs since becoming a game developer. But seeing my Twitter-stream blow up with GDC tweets is always a bit depressing not because I am missing sessions (80% of which are just total garbage), but because I’m missing spending time with the people that make me feel like I can self-identify as a game developer. Since the launch of Sudoku Together, I’ve worked on a couple things for Sky Parlor that may or may not ever be released, did some other consulting things, and made a Corrypt-inspired puzzle game by myself that also may never be released due to lack of confidence.
I feel the need to learn a new tool like Unity or GameMaker, but deep down I wonder if that is because I want to leverage something to make new things or because if I am learning something new, then I can rationalize why I’m not making something (just not good enough with the tool yet!)
I used to do a blog post every day or every other day. I’d take what was happening in the world of games and try to relate it to my experience. But lately, I’ve been completely unable to do that. Everything I find just puts me off working on games. What is there to be excited about?
I teach by day and it’s a great job, but it does take a lot of work and 75% of students don’t actually want to design games, they just want to be a game designer.
I don’t want to be like that.
I have a lot of game design-related things to say, but feel like a phony saying them in a non-student setting anymore. I look at the sessions listing at GDC and know with utmost certainty that 90% of them can be distilled down to a blog post. Danc’s made Triple Town and Leap Day, so I think he’s qualified to write articles like this. When I look at my Scrivener, I’ve written almost 100,000 words on game design in the last year. Some of them ended up in this book, but most I just co-opted to use internally in my game design classes.
So I guess what I’m saying is that I need some rah-rah time. I haven’t fallen off the face of the Earth; I’ve just been working a lot on some unseen things.
A new high water mark for me in terms of reading things this year. When you can never, ever sleep, you can get a lot of reading done. I have a GoodReads account now too, but I’ve been doing this blogside for five years or so, so I’m keeping it up. I started to dig through the “best sci-fi/fantasy of all time” lists and I’m discovering tons of absolutely unmissable stuff that is loads better than the Scalzi-esque crap that everyone holds up nowadays. This year, I’m not adding any collections of articles or professional books I didn’t read cover to cover (which was many).
In 2008, I read 31 Titles, 7,967 Pages, 21.77 Pages/Day
In 2009, I read 18 Titles, 4,960 Pages, 13.59 Pages/Day
In 2010, I read 36 Titles, 11,574 Pages, 31.71 Pages/Day
In 2011, I read 30 Titles, 10,163 Pages, 27.84 Pages/Day
In 2012, I read 45 Titles (!), 14,791 Pages, 40.52 Pages/Day
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan (526)
I like the sci-fi detective genre. I wish there were more good entries in it. This book came highly recommended but I found it to be simultaneously full of holes and full of unlikely explanations/excuses. The secondary characters were so unmemorable that I had to keep searching back to remember who such-and-such was when they were inevitably brought to the fore as a “twist”. It wasn’t terrible, but I think my expectations were just far too high. There were a lot of cool Ideas (capital I) in here, but the execution here just was not my style. I hear he is writing the Syndicate reboot… so…. yay?
Among Others by Jo Walton (302)
This is a highly nontraditional story, but I can’t help contrast it with Ready Player One (below). Both have obsessive subculture fans as their protagonist, but Walton’s is far more believable. She gets the rock-sure opinions and the highly conflated sense of being so right. The sci-fi references aren’t just for marking off a nostalgia checklist like they are in Ready Player One, it is actually for character-building. The plot itself in this is much weaker, but because I actually care about the characters, it matters less. The plot is almost weak on purpose–the really juicy events seem to be written off as prologue and it serves the theme of being grounded in the real versus being trapped in the unreal.
Babel-17 by Samuel Delaney (158)
Some interesting ideas percolating around an uninteresting plot.
Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock (124)
I know that this was published in the 1960s. But I couldn’t help feeling the same feeling I got when reading Lord of the Rings; that I was reading a pitch-perfect cliche. Now, obviously, LotR was the original and all my other related experiences were the cliche, but that didn’t change that I didn’t get much out of reading it. I feel the same way here: time-traveler meets an important historic figure who turns out to not be what history says he is. I’ve seen that before. Moorcock may have invented it for all I know, but that doesn’t change my reaction to it. Thankfully, it was novella-length. I don’t think editors would let you get away with that today.
By Light Alone by Adam Roberts (416)
A great Science Fiction conceit, but the author doesn’t really seem to be concerned with developing his conceit. Or his plot. Or his characters. The first third is a truly awful satire of the rich carried along only by the promise of an interesting world beyond what the main characters are doing. It honestly felt a lot like Hemingway-rich people doing things that are hard to care about. The final third of the book is more interesting than anything before and a twist certainly pays off, but like most capital-L literature authors, he doesn’t feel like the audience is entitled to any sort of conclusion. There’s books that are “meh” because it is tough to care about them. Then there are books like this that are “meh” because there is so much good stuff hidden behind all the distractions.
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller (334)
Amazing. I seem to have stumbled upon a theme in the past year of sci-fi books where the Catholic church plays a major role (Hyperion, Grass, this). Really one of the best sci-fi books I’ve ever read.
The City and the City by China Mieville (312)
Loved it. But not Mieville’s best, unlike the consensus opinion.
Clementine by Cherie Priest (208)
No Boneshaker, this. Pulpy steampunk airship pirate nonsense. Not much in the way of twists or setbacks. I hear her newest one has the same problems, so I may be done with her. Entertaining though to a point. No real strong feelings.
The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett (240)
Been hearing about Discworld for ages, but this didn’t hook me at all.
Costume Not Included by Matthew Hughes (384)
I like Hughes a lot, but I found this one utterly pointless.
A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin (1040)
A bad book in this series is better than average for any other series…
The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard (176)
A Heart of Darkness by any other name.
Emphyrio by Jack Vance (222)
Truly great speculative fiction is a mix of Big Ideas, Little Ideas, Plot and Character. This is one of those rare works that has all four. I’ve been told I’d like Vance again and again and they were right. I’m adding a bunch to my to-read list.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (324)
Perhaps a little overhyped. Certainly miles better than Old Man’s War which rips this off left and right without any of the cleverness. I probably won’t read any others in the series. I liked it, though.
The Futurlogical Congress by Stanislaw Lem (149)
Completely batshit insane, but in the good way. Probably the highest per-page density of made-up words reflecting actual new ideas. Still though, nuts.
Grass by Sherri Tepper (540)
Fantastic. A little too neatly resolved for my tastes, but some of the best plotting I’ve ever read. I’m excited that, like Mieville’s Bas-Lag stories, the sequels are only in the same universe and are unique stories, not just a serialization of one story.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami (400)
Excellent. I had seen Haibane Renmei a few years ago and it quickly became my favorite anime of all time, or at least is somewhere up there. Haibane is based on half of this Murakami book. Having started and put down 1Q84, I may go back to it now that I know what I’m getting into.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (374)
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (391)
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (390)
It’s a thing.
Hyperion by Dan Simmons (481)
The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons (528)
Endymion by Dan Simmons (736)
The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons (720)
Hyperion cheats a bit. Instead of having to keep one plot moving for the length of the book, it really strings six novelettes together with a small overarching tale. However, the tales themselves have some interesting parallels that keep them from being just disparate stories in the same universe. What struck me here was not just the plot and speculative twists (There were many ideas worthy of their own stories just touched briefly) but the beautiful storytelling for each. Sol Weintraub’s story is not highly original but it is highly engaging. Simmons leaves enough mystery about the Shrike monster to keep the pages turning while giving the seven pilgrims their own interesting decisions and goals. My biggest disappointment is that the first book flows into The Fall of Hyperion. The climax of Hyperion is barely a climax at all. Fall is really the second-half of the book and raises the stakes significantly. Taken as one work, one of my favorite sci-fi books of the last decade.
Endymion and Rise of Endymion is a welcome continuation of the universe. It is a bit hand-wavy and overwrought at times and filled with way too many deus ex machina (both literally and figuratively) but the ending was so compelling that I forgive it its trespasses.
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin (176)
I’m not entirely sure why this is classified as sci-fi, but it is on the “sci-fi classics” lists all over the place. It seems to me to be more magical realism of a kind. Fantastic and obviously the basis for a lot of dreams-as-reality movies that have come since. Deep in theme and powerful without sacrificing plot.
Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny (296)
I had issues with this one. Loved the premise that doesn’t actually show itself until late in the book, but felt it took a long time building.
Monster by A. Lee Martinez (295)
Lots of fun. Did Ugly Americans steal from this?
The Mount by Carol Emshwiller (240)
Excellent. A good core conceit and tons to say about ambition and freedom. May reread soon.
The Other by Matthew Hughes (240)
As in previous lists, I’ll buy pretty much anything Hughes does, especially if it is an Archonate story (which this is). The story starts very slowly and at that time suffers from Hughes’ completely uninteresting characters. Imbry could be Hapthorn for all the differences they share. For a con-man, he is relatively well-behaved. Hughes’ matter-of-fact tone and dialogue put a lot of people off but the mysteries he creates are so compelling that I always enjoy the ride. Having said that, after the rough start, this story gets pretty good with some non-obvious twists and then ends with the possibility of a sequel, which I will likely jump on. It isn’t Hughes’ best, but it is still a lot of fun.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (372)
Fanservice. I’m sure it will be a Major Motion Picture for Gen-X and Gen-Y kids to spend their coin on soon.
Redshirts by John Scalzi (317)
Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky (145)
Oddly enough, I started reading this a day after playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. for the first time without knowing that the latter was highly inspired by the former. An amazing novella about living with the unexplainable. Surreal, yet identifiable.
Tau Zero by Poul Anderson (190)
Very dry. I guess this is what they call “hard” sci-fi. Water mine down a bit. Characters were a bit hard-to-believe. But the “hook”, a damaged interstellar ship that cannot decelerate and must go faster and faster towards the speed of light while leaving everything that they could ever know behind is strong enough to carry the book through.
The Twelve by Justin Cronin (568)
Alternates between moving scenes with clever wordplay and massive sections of detail that end up being irrelevant. The Passage was one of my favorite books of 2010 for its unique version of post-apocalypse (albeit absolutely trite version of apocalypse), but The Twelve felt like half an amazing book and half filler. Remember how good Heroes Season 1 was when watching it live? The possibilities. The subtle connections? This is Heroes Season 3. I didn’t not like it, but compared to its predecessor, it leaves a lot to be desired.
The Unincorporated Man by Dani and Etyan Kollin (479)
Oscillates between brilliant and unbearable, with a little bit too much Hyperion thrown in. It’s probably the first book that thoroughly fleshes out a political system without making it either a utopia or dystopia to slam through a political point.
Wool: Omnibus by Hugh Howey (540)
First Shift: Legacy by Hugh Howey (238)
Second Shift: Chaos by Hugh Howey (268)
Wool is a wonderful otherworldly post-apocalyptic short story that is then expanded into full novel form in Parts 2-5. While 1 was tight and self-contained to wonderful effect, the later parts get a little more into tropes and vary in quality but add up to an overall compelling experience.
In First Shift, Howey pulls back the curtain to so many of the unanswered questions from Wool… and it is pretty boring. Sometimes there is magic in a world with loose ends. There’s almost nowhere to go from here. It’s like he spent a ton of time building an interesting world with interesting mysteries and then he reveals all the mysteries. It’s like spoilers.
By Second Shift, Mr. Howey is clearly cashing in on the goodwill generated from his first collection of Wool novellas. Second Shift doesn’t stand alone as an interesting story. It’s almost like Wool fanfiction at this point. The inciting incident really doesn’t take place until more than halfway through the book and by that time I was really aching for it to get interesting. With the mystery of the series extinguished, there’s really little carrying reader interest forward. Every smaller-scale mystery that gets posed in this resolves in the most obvious manner possible. There was one that he leaves open (for the next one, I assume), but by then it is far too late. Howey was able to make Mayor Jahns and Deputy Marnes interesting and heartfelt characters in a small amount of space in Wool 2 but he has mostly lost that ability in this “Shift” series. There are few characters here to care about or even wonder about. There’s little to no subtext that is anything different from the first five. Everything here is just forgettable.
I’ll probably keep buying them because I feel trapped by the series, hoping it will go somewhere as interesting as it had promise to.
100 Things Every Designers Needs to Know About People by Susan Weinsheck (242)
100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People by Susan Weinsheck (272)
Nice little summaries of findings on presentation and design. Not too much I didn’t already know, but a nice accessible reference.
Conscience of a Conservative by Barry Goldwater (144)
False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency by Gene Healy (92)
Really just an addendum to Cult of the Presidency which is really the best politics book I’ve read in a decade. Not like the crap demagoguery you get from the right or left. It continues to examine the 44th president under its thesis as Cult did for up to W. Bush.
The Libertarian Vote by David Boaz, et al (224)
Mostly poll data and reprints from Cato’s site. Not a lot of original information.
Mindset by Carol Dweck (288)
Every now and again I find a pop-psychology or just general pop-non-fiction that really speaks to me. Last year, it was Drive. This year it was Mindset. An incredible theoretic tool for educators and general perfectionists like myself. I read a lot in this genre but rarely finish. This one gets highest marks, but like many in its field, can be distilled down to a chapter and probably retain the same message.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver Sacks (256)
Reading horror novels before bed doesn’t give me the heeby-jeebies like it does some people (my wife), but this book was absolutely terrifying. It’s a collection of case studies of the oddest edge cases seen in the author’s long neurology career, from the titular doctor who was seemingly fine but could not process the shape of things into its representational object to people with full cognitive capability yet who could not control their limbs to a man who was convinced his leg was stolen and someone put a disgusting foreign leg on him to replace it. I know that comparing humans to computers is flawed, but I couldn’t help but when reading this to compare this conditions to obscure software bugs that end up teaching you more about the systems you have written.
Rise of the Videogame Zinesters by Anna Anthropy (208)
I was a bit worried about this. Anna is known for, how should I say, being a bit bombastic. None of that (okay, maybe a little drips in from time to time where the editor’s wand missed) is present here in this incredibly personal and earnest entreaty to stop letting games only be produced by giant teams for the lowest common denominator. The message is delivered well with great supporting references and asides. It is fairly bite-sized; I read it on a flight from SFO to LAX coming from GDC FWIW, but that doesn’t mean the elaborations on the central theme (make some damn video games right now) aren’t necessary or meaningful. Good stuff.
Social Game Design by Tim Fields and Brandon Cotton (223)
Full of good throwaway stats, but utterly depressing in that it treats gameplay as irrelevant and users as only important insofar as how much money can be extracted from them or how many people they can invite in order to extract money from. Great for mercenaries.
I’ve been relegating most of my public thoughts and comments recently to the social networks due to the extreme demands on my time. 2012 has been a crazy year and I’ve worked more than I ever have in any other year of my life. Nonetheless, I will still take a small consulting job on the side here and there if its scope is limited and if it interests me. It has to be good to compete for my time against my two current jobs and any free/sanity time with my wife. I miss her, you understand.
Despite not really putting too many feelers out there, I’ve been blessed with getting more than a dozen offers for consulting work this year. These come from either referrals from my network (hey, you know who might be good for that?) or oddly, organic searches that may get my name and contact info from this here blog. Since some of them have been outright odd I figured I’d take a moment and compile a short list (blog are about lists, you see) based on my experience called:
How to Convince Consultant Talent To Work For You On The Internet
- Know What Business I Am In – I guess there is some third party service sending traffic my way, but I have had multiple inquiries in the past year to work on slot machines. I have nothing particularly against slot machines, but I also don’t have any experience with the casino industry. I am a game designer who has worked and does work in consumer games. I’m mostly a systems designer, but I also do some concept work. This means my specialty is in understanding how systems interact and how to design game dynamics to reach certain “gameplay” goals. If you are having troubles getting your game to feel a certain way, that’s where I can be of a great help. If you are, say, looking for someone to dig up dirt on Zynga for a patent lawsuit, I won’t be of much help. Or if you are looking for someone to develop your “hit idea” (see below), you also won’t find me very helpful.
- Tell Me What Services You Would Like For Me To Deliver and in What Timeframe – As I said before, I have been very busy. I’m very satisfied by my work with Full Sail University and with Sky Parlor Studios. These jobs don’t leave me with a lot of free time. If you are interested enough in hiring me to provide you services, please know why you want to hire me in the first place! Let me know what you would like me to provide and in what timeframe. I do product reviews, concept work, critique, editing, content development and sometimes the miscellany of general consulting. I recently had a gig where a client wanted me to review his current game and provide him feedback on why certain systems were not working. It wouldn’t take more than a few hours. Perfect! He TestFlight’ed me a build. It took me about four hours; the project was really interesting stuff. I felt like I provided some honest value and I was able to crank it out on a weekend.On the other hand, I often get emails that say someone has “an idea” for a “hit game” and if I could just help design it and develop it, that would be great. I’m sure someone out there may fall for that one, but you are better off not wasting your, my, or anyone else’s time. Scratch that. There is one scenario in which I’d take that job. It would require at least five to six zeroes before the decimal point based on the scope of that “idea”.
- Use Professional Language – I am very much aware that for many of the folks who contact me, English is not their first language.That’s ok! But for me to know what you want from me and for me to know that I will be able to communicate with you, I must be able to decipher your requests. If I cannot understand your introduction email, I know that when money gets involved, I may not be able to deliver what you expected and that’s when business turns sour. And if English is in fact your primary language, if you do not take the care to read over your email a second time to check for basic errors that could cause confusion, what does this tell me about the level of care with which you operate your business?
- Make Sure You Are Googleable – Know this: I will Google you. If I cannot find anything tied to a person or business that has some record in the real world, I will not work with you. It is too risky for me. Give me a link to your company or project’s website that lets me know what I am getting into. Maybe your current project is under wraps and your company is operating silently. That’s fine. I will sign a professional NDA. Or send me a link to something you’ve done before that can show me you are a real person operating a real business.
- Offer Me Money – You can have the most interesting sounding work in the world for me. If your introduction letter contains “We cannot pay you right away, but…” just stop right there. I want to know you are serious. A portion of your Kickstarter proceeds (this has happened) is not payment. Show me skin in the game if I am going to spend my precious time on your project. If you think I will work for free or for the vaporware promise of payment, you just show that you think my work is worth nothing. I know otherwise and so I will not accept your offer. Maybe there will be some future in which I will work for equity, but that’s not the case now unless I know you personally.
- Show Me That You Know What You Are Doing – All of these really just boil down to one principle: show me that you know what you are doing. I am a professional and will work with other professionals. I have my own hobbies that I love; working on your game isn’t one of them. If you are looking for me because you know I have a specific set of skills that can help you get over a rough point in your project, I’m happy to discuss terms with you. If you are looking for me because you Googled “game designer” and I came up in the top one thousand, then you don’t really know what you are doing.
Maybe that came off a bit curmudgeonly. I certainly know a lot of visual artists soured on the perils of freelancing. That’s not my point. If you are serious, I want your project to succeed. And if I can help, even better. The consulting work I’ve taken has been some really interesting changes of pace from my two primary jobs. But if you are wasting time trying to bark up the wrong tree, then you need to reevaluate where else you may be wasting resources. In the end, it doesn’t hurt to ask, but I’d like to save both your time and mine.