Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Stone of Names is on the Kindle Store!

I said I'd get Stone of Names available for purchase by the end of the year, and I made it with a few hours to spare. Click here to check it out.

I'm also going to be moving most of my author-related posts to my new blog and to my new Facebook page. These sites will present my public face as an author. My more chatty personal posts will remain here at Adventure21.

Now on to getting the print version ready for sale...

Monday, November 25, 2013

Stone of Names: November Status Report

I'm still on track to have Stone of Names up on Amazon in December. It might be 11 PM December 31st, but it will be December. I'm in the final editing phase, correcting a few continuity and missing-information issues. Unfortunately, my productivity has really slowed down. I might have to step away from the book for a couple of days to reboot.

I'm torn about whether my next book should be the alt-history whodunit I have planned, or the young adult urban fantasy I recently had an idea for. I already have the mystery all plotted out, down to the characters and scenes and whatnot, but I expect that more contemporary urban fantasy is an easier sell right now.

In any case, Stone of Names is definitely in the homestretch now. Can't wait to have a copy in my hands.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Review: The Walking Dead [Game]

I've expressed my discontent with zombie fiction before. So many zombie stories are simply endless sequences of live people shooting dead people in the head. I also think that there are entirely too many zombie video games (although, as a genre, it's certainly outnumbered by "elves, swords, and magic" games, which leads to a whole different conversation).

That being said, The Walking Dead is a fantastic game.

It might be more accurate to call it an interactive story, instead of a game. Though it's a point-and-click adventure game at heart, there are only a few puzzles that could be considered challenging. The quick-time events ("click this hotspot NOW!") present more of an obstacle, but a couple of these are more frustrating than engaging. The rest of your interaction with the story primarily consists of walking the main character through a series of obvious steps.

Once in a while, though, the simple actions you're presented with leave you with a choice of options, and the decision you make has a significant effect on the rest of the story. If you have the hints turned off, it may not even be obvious that you've hit one of those branching points. And once your decision is made, you get to play through the consequences.

The game designers made sure to put some emotional weight behind those choices. There were several occasions where I was horrified at the decision that I was being forced to make, and given only a couple of seconds in which to make it. Those mouse clicks are far more gut-wrenching than any other game's "click here to kill a zombie" mechanics.

Even the sequences where you're just clicking through a series of fixed events are used to really drive home the mood of the story. Whether you're staggering through a corridor or wielding a gory axe, the interactive events put you into the middle of the story and make you feel that the blood is really on your hands.

The art, the writing, and the voice acting are all top-notch. This would have been a decent story even without the interactive elements. But the game gives you enough control to really draw you into the hope and the pain of the characters, and elevates it to a higher level.

I wouldn't say this is a "fun" game. It's certainly not a happy-go-lucky murder simulator where your character deals death with a quip and a wink. Parts of this game hurt to play. But I think this is the best zombie apocalypse story I've seen, and quite possibly it always will be.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Anachronox is on Steam!

Anachronox is one of my favorite games of all time, and I'm elated that it's now available on Steam. I still have my original install disks, secured in a hermetically-sealed safe in a secret offsite location, but now it's available to everyone for easy and convenient download.

I recommend this game almost without hesitation. The reason I hesitate is that it's a bit odd, and some folks might not care for it as a result. The graphics are surely dated and quaint by now (they were even a bit dated at the time it came out) and the combat system is not exactly a tightly tuned engine of tactical complexity. But the story, style, and humor kept me glued to the screen from beginning to end, and for that alone, I'm glad that more gamers will get a chance to experience this game.

At heart, Anachronox is a classic console-style RPG, a mixture of dungeon crawls, turn-based battles, character progression, and world exploration, with a strong focus on story. I love all of these elements, but for many console RPG's, the "story" is somewhat lacking. I don't need to play any more RPG's staring the brave-but-bland hero without a past, accompanied by his pure-hearted love interest and a cast of stereotypes including the gruff but loyal bruiser or the gorgeous woman with big breasts and few clothes.

The story of Anachronox is about a down-on-his-luck private eye who ...

Yeah, they had me at private eye.

Anachronox is primarily a mix of cyberpunk and space opera, in a world that never takes itself too seriously. One of your companions is a grumpy old wizard who can stun opponents with a powerful stream of gibberish; another companion is a miniaturized planet whose population has decided to send their homeworld off on adventure. At one point in the game you encounter a large organization of superheroes, whose detailed backstories include the issue number of the fictional comic book series they debuted in. (I wanted very badly to read these comics.) The game's humor can be found even in subtle details of the setting, like the vending machine you find in a lobby of the game's central space station, with a label on the side reading "Asnackronox".

One day, when I have some time on my hands, I hope to play through this fantastic game and enjoy it all over again. I still nurse an ambition of one day running a tabletop roleplaying game set in the Anachronox universe. But for now, I merely want to give the game a shout-out, and encourage anyone who loves a little humor and noir with their science fiction to plunk down seven bucks and let Sylvester "Sly" Boots show you around his world.

(Oh - and is a sequel too much to hope for? Maybe by way of a Kickstarter project? I'll be first in line to pledge.)

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Memory of Flight

So I had a very odd dream.

Mary Lynn and I were sitting on the roof of an apartment building, about three stories up. Above us was a blue sky, draped with several broad white clouds. One particularly large cloud bank was approaching, and as I looked at it, I saw that a large round hole had opened up in the bottom of the cloud, and something like a waterfall was spilling down from the opening's rim.

I immediately pointed this out to Mary Lynn. As we watched, the stuff (whatever it was) that was falling from the cloud seemed to level off, forming a horizontal stream, which began to drift by us at the level of the roof we were on. I expected to see just a horizontal column of mist, but as we looked, we saw that the stream was actually formed of innumerable floating feathers, about as long as my hand. Each feather had an intricate, delicate structure, and was colored white with grey touches.

One of us (I don't know who) reached out into this passing stream of feathers and brought back something larger. It was also white, gray, and fluffy, but was about the size of a soccer ball, with the heft of something that had been made of papier-mache. A point at one end that gave it a round teardrop shape, and opposite the point, a long feathery crest hung from the object, nearly as long as I am tall.

After staring at it a while, it became clear to us that we were holding the mummified head of a huge bird. This fantastic white-gray avian had, for some reason, disintegrated in the upper atmosphere, and its feathers and impossibly light bones had spread out into a cloud. This cloud had drifted with the wind until some twist of atmosphere and temperature had caused the feathers to suddenly fall, near the apartment building where Mary Lynn and I sat. Thermals near the buildings had temporarily halted the descent of the bird's remains, causing them to float past us where we sat on the roof.

Below us, an actual river flowed past the building whose roof we occupied. We dropped the head off the roof, and it fell into the river, along with the other feathers and remnants that had begun to succumb to gravity. The head, and the other feathers, turned black when they touched the water, sank, and dissolved.

I woke up shortly after that, knowing that I had seen one of the most miraculous and astonishing sights of my life -- and that it had only been a dream.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Stone of Names: Cover Art Preview

Karri Klawiter, the artist who prepared the cover art for Stone of Names, was kind enough to post a preview of the cover on her web site. Click here to take a look. While you're there, be sure to check out Karri's other projects as well.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Stone of Names: October Status Update

Rejection letters are still trickling in from literary agents, which means I'm on track to self-publish Stone of Names come December. I've commissioned cover art from a professional illustrator, and I'm overjoyed with the results. The cover looks so nice that it would be a shame to just sell it on the Kindle. I'm now considering selling it through print-on-demand as well, through CreateSpace at least. (For anyone reading this blog who's also shopping around for cover art, I highly recommend Karri Klawiter; she turned around quick, high-quality work, and was very accommodating when it came to tweaks and revisions.)

The conventional wisdom among self-publishers seems to be that sales will be slow until you have several books available for purchase under your name. Readers who like one of your books will be more likely to buy the rest. The more books you have available, the more books you're likely to sell to happy readers. A common strategy is to publish a linked series of books and offer the first one for free.

This suggests, of course, that my smart move is to turn Stone of Names into a series. I know what the next two books in this hypothetical series would be about, but I'm more interested in telling a different kind of story. Stone of Names, at heart, is a fairly traditional high fantasy story; I have something more original in mind for my next book. If I get good results from Stone of Names, though, I might be more likely to write those hypothetical next two books.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Verify, Then Trust

Today's first lesson: if you live in the United States and you are being questioned by a law enforcement officer, and you want to decline to answer a question, be sure to state explicitly that you are exercising your legal right to silence.

Today's second lesson, unrelated but equally important: don't sign a petition or call a public official until you've verified for yourself that you have the facts about the issue at hand.

I tend to be somewhat left-leaning on many political issues, and I get a lot of e-mail from left/progressive/liberal/Democratic/green organizations telling me about their cause du jour. Frequently these e-mails come in the form of a statement that something horrible has happened, accompanied by a plea to contact someone in authority and complain about it. For the most part, I appreciate getting these e-mails, because it lets me know when someone is trying to organize a coordinated outcry about an issue I care about.

But I always double-check the information these organizations are sending me. I'll go and look up the text of the law in question, or the facts about the Supreme Court decision we're talking about. Unfortunately, I have do do this homework on my own, because I've found that I can't trust my so-called allies on the left to give me the straight facts.

The note I got today is one such example. The underlying issue may well be something for folks to be concerned about, and is certainly something that everyone should be aware of, but the e-mail I received about it is misleading, exaggerated, and inappropriate.

In brief, I got a note about the SCOTUS Salinas v. Texas decision that was given in June of 2013. The court decision pertains to a criminal investigation in which a person of interest was being questioned by authorities but had not yet been placed in custody. The individual declined to answer a question about the crime, and later, the prosecutor included this refusal as part of the evidence of the person's guilt. This case made it up to the Supreme Court because the accused's defense claimed that this silence could not be used as evidence against the defendant, as per the Fifth Amendment. The Supreme Court nixed this defense, indicating that it is critical that law enforcement officers must have a clear indication of when a suspect is claiming his Fifth Amendment rights, as opposed to when a suspect is aware of his rights but has not yet chosen to exercise them. Therefore, the defendant's silence was admissible as evidence, since the defendant in this case did not explicitly declare that he was exercising his Fifth Amendment rights.

The e-mail I got, however, doesn't say any of this. The e-mail contains no details of the case, and simply includes language such as the following:
  • The Supreme Court Just Eliminated The Fifth Amendment.
  • This Supreme Court ruling guts the Fifth Amendment and turns the Constitution into a list of privileges, not rights.
  • The Supreme Court just handed down a decision that rewrites the Constitution, claiming we have no Fifth Amendment protection unless we explicitly call for it.
About the only thing missing here is a statement that Justice Roberts has established his own personal army and has seized control of the government. It's a small blessing that the e-mail did include a link to an article explaining exactly what happened, which has very little to do with what the e-mail claims. First of all, the Fifth Amendment, in total, reads as follows:
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
It should be clear at a glance that this SCOTUS decision applies only to one clause of this amendment. The assertion that the decision "rewrites the Constitution" or "eliminated the Fifth Amendment" is a ridiculous bit of hyperbole.

In fact, it's not at all clear that even the clause "nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself" has been nullified by this decision. The SCOTUS case was specifically about a defendant who was not in custody and declined to answer a question. The decision seems to have no bearing whatsoever about the testimony (or lack thereof) given during a formal trial.

What we're talking about here are Miranda rights, which are a facet of this clause of the amendment. And while this decision does seem to weaken the protection given by Miranda rights, it's important to note that this is merely a repeat of a similar SCOTUS ruling given back in 2010.

Yes, there is a legal issue here to be concerned about. Yes, this decision raises a legal hazard for any potential defendant who isn't aware of this particular ruling and its implications. But no one has torn up the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, and in fact, the legal precedent here was set three years ago, if not earlier.

I would be happy to get an e-mail informing me that a recent SCOTUS ruling has re-affirmed what seems to be a weakening of my Miranda rights, and suggesting that I talk to my Congresscritters about it. I'm not at all pleased to get an e-mail telling me that the Supreme Court has started burning the founding documents of our democracy.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Stone of Names: September Update

This is probably going to be the last update about Stone of Names for a few months. I've sent the last query letter I intend to send for this book, and I need to wait a couple of months to let any late responses come in. I would hate to have this book uploaded and selling on Amazon and then get a note from an agent saying that they love it and want to represent it.

But the uniform series of rejection letters suggests that I am going to have to self-publish it. The book is clearly lacking something that makes it attractive to an agent.

It might be something simple. I had one response suggest that the book is too short to easily sell. This is a completely valid observation. The book is only 63K words and change, and I know that's pretty short. But that's as long as the story is. The story went everywhere I wanted it to. I'm sure that I could have padded it out with more stuff, but the book as written is the book that I wanted to write. If it's too short for the current market, then it's completely appropriate for me to self-publish.

Or I might be trying to sell a book that the market doesn't want right now. Urban fantasy is big right now, and there might not be as much room for a traditional elves-and-dragons kind of story.

Or my writing still might not have quite enough polish to catch an agent's eye. My beta test readers helped me quite a bit with Stone of Names; I've joined the Critters online workshop in the hopes of continuing to improve.

In the meantime, I'll be working on the cover art and the book description that will appear on Amazon. Hopefully, around the start of the new year, I'll have it available for download.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Adventures in Query Writing

Throughout August, I've been hunting down literary agents on the web, identifying agents who seem to be interested in conventional fantasy fiction, and sending them query letters in the hopes of finding representation. For those who haven't participated in this exercise, it's a ... unique experience.

Most agents want some combination of the following:

  • A query letter
  • A synopsis of your book
  • Some portion of your manuscript, from a few pages to a few chapters
Every agent is different. I've been told that literary agents receive a huge volume of queries; their job is to sift through a mountain of broken glass and find a diamond in it. I do not envy them this task. So when I find that this agent wants five sample pages while this other agent wants ten, or this other agent wants my material inline within the email while this other other agent wants it attached as a Word DOC, I'm glad to comply. Whatever works best for their workflow is fine with me, and I'm happy to accommodate.

But every so often, I run across an agent who has very particular requirements. Some agents have online forms that you must submit through, instead of sending e-mail. A few agents want to see all material, including the query letter, in the form of Word documents. It takes a little more work on my end to get my stuff prepared to meet some of these unique requirements, but if I want to get published, I have to be willing to do the work.

And then there are the agents who just seem to be constructing an arbitrary and elaborate series of obstacles for reasons known only to them. I feel at times like I'm being made to pass some sort of examination to see how thoroughly I can follow instructions. This, combined with the steady stream of rejection letters I've been getting back, makes this an exceptionally humbling experience.

So, for anyone out there who's planning to try to find an agent for a book, I would offer the following advice: when you find an agent's web site, read it carefully, and try to find the following:
  • Try to find the agency's web site, so that you can find their up-to-date information. There are several web sites that have listings of agents, but the information on those sites might be obsolete. The agent you're looking at might be out of the business, or might not be looking for your genre of fiction any more. Don't just send a query blind to someone's email unless you can determine their status first.
  • While you're on their web site, check for any danger signs that might indicate that this isn't a legitimate agent. Anyone who wants to charge you money just to read your manuscript is not the kind of agent you want to associate with. A legitimate agent earns his or her money from the publisher by selling your book. (Here is a good place to start if you want to learn more about organizations and entities that you should avoid.)
  • Try to identify whether or not they're interested in your type of work. Most agency web sites will list somewhere what they're looking for. If the web site has agent bio pages, this is usually a good place to start.
  • Find their submissions guidelines, and read them closely. You probably have a pre-prepared query letter and synopsis, but you might need to tweak what you have to meet a specific agent's needs. Don't get yourself disqualified just because you forgot to send something that the agent asked for.
  • Don't take rejection personally. Don't get upset at the agent who sends you a polite "thanks, but not thanks." Be professional. Query someone else.
In short: if you're going to try to find an agent, be prepared to put in a lot of work.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review: The Wolverine (Spoiler Warning)

Short answer: The Wolverine is an adequate superhero movie, but you've almost certainly seen this story before, even if you haven't read the exact comics this movie is based on.

Spoilers ahead, by the way.

I've never been that much of a Wolverine fan. When I was collecting comic books, I had a different first choice for my stories about a tough, cyncial, flawed hero. I was disappointed when the first three X-Men movies basically turned out to be "Wolverine and His Less Competent Friends". So it may not be much of a surprise that I thought this particular outing for the super-healing Aussie was lukewarm at best.

But the basic story of The Wolverine is completely paint-by-the-numbers. You start with your hard-edged hero, who's suffering from a painful past and hiding his bad-assitude under a basket. Then he's offered a chance to do something meaningful and noble. He tries to walk away, but eventually finds that he can't; he's become smitten with the story's damsel in distress, who is sufficiently helpless that the hero must come to her rescue. He succeeds, and by doing so, he rediscovers himself and his purpose.

The movie just keeps hitting the same old cliches, right down to the love-em-and-leave-em, "I don't fit into your world, babe" ending. I know that some of this story actually predates the movie, although there's not much in common between the original comics and the movie aside from a few characters and the general theme. With so much divergence from the source material, the scriptwriters certainly could have invented a less cliche Wolverine/Mariko storyline.

There are a few good moments in the movie, and Yukio is a fun character I wouldn't mind seeing more of. And, of course, there's the mid-credits teaser for the next movie, which by itself will probably justify the price of admission for hardcore fans. If you're keen to see Hugh Jackman beat up ninja or take his shirt off a lot, you're well-served by The Wolverine, but otherwise, there's nothing special or noteworthy here.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Review: OUYA

Now that we've had our OUYA for a while, I have to say that the OUYA is a cool and inexpensive toy, but it's somewhat superfluous right now, and will continue to be until it gets some more compelling content.

I've seen a lot of chatter on the internet from folks who have incorrect assumptions about what the OUYA is supposed to be. Some people are assuming it's a Playstation/Xbox/Nintendo competitor, and are dismayed at the low-end graphics and the lack of AAA titles. Some people are assuming it's just a way to run cell phone games on your TV, and don't know why they should bother, since they already have a cell phone.

The OUYA is not supposed to be a top-tier console; the tiny size ought to be a dead giveaway. And it's not just for cell phone games; games like Bombsquad and Towerfall work best with four friends sitting around the same screen.

The OUYA is supposed to be a console platform with a low barrier of entry for independent developers. If I personally took a week off and locked myself in the house with a copy of Unity, I could have a game up on the OUYA store by the end of the week. (Disclaimer: I don't actually know how long the OUYA game review/approval process takes, but I've heard that it sometimes takes mere hours.) This is great for small developers; it lets you get your game in front of the public at minimal expense.

The problem is that the console doesn't offer a lot to the actual gamer, which is the person who's supposed to be buying the thing.

Are you interested in cheap console games? The existing consoles already offer a variety of cheap games for download. I could go right now and download a variety of PS1 classics that are priced less than some of the less-polished efforts available on the OUYA.

Do you like indie games? Again, the digital download stores for the big consoles have you covered there as well, though you won't find a lot of quirky, lone-developer, "I did this because I thought it was cool" titles on the big consoles. For those more obscure indie titles, the best place to go is still your Windows PC. (And you can plug your PC into your big screen TV and break out a wireless controller if you still want that console experience.)

Since the more successful OUYA titles are already available on more mainstream platforms (or soon will be) there's not really a compelling reason to rush out and pick up an OUYA at this point. This may change in the future; more games are coming out on the OUYA all the time, and it's possible that we'll start to see some high-quality, OUYA-exclusive games. But for right now, unless you're really interesting in supporting the platform, youre better off getting your fix for cheap games and/or indie games elsewhere.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Review: Shadowrun Returns

I've spent some more time with Shadowrun Returns since my last post, and I'm still enjoying it. The story and dialogue are well-written; the puzzles are pleasantly challenging without being frustrating; the combat engine is simple and fun. It's not a terribly deep or complex game, though the different character classes provide a lot of variety. I'm playing a mage, but I'm looking forward to replaying it so that I can try the adept, the decker, the shaman, the rigger, and the street samurai.

I've heard that the campaign isn't very long -- only about a dozen hours -- but honestly, that's fine for me, given that I don't have time to sink hundreds of hours into a game. With a story this short, I can actually look forward to finishing a few replays during my lifetime. Also, player-created missions and campaigns should provide a lot more material.

The campaign editor isn't as user friendly as Neverwinter's, but the online documentation helps flatten the learning curve a little. I've started building my own little adventure, and I have ideas for several more.

My only serious complaint is the same complaint you'll see on any public discussion about the game: your progress is only saved at the start of each map. So if you enter a map, conduct a few conversations, solve a puzzle or two, get into combat, and get killed, you have to start all over at the beginning of the map and run the same conversations and puzzles. This can be frustrating, especially if you have to stop play and step away from the computer for any reason. I'm sure this design decision saved them a fair amount of development effort, but it's a significant flaw in an otherwise enjoyable game.

Even with the checkpoint-based save feature, I'm still pleased with the game and I don't regret backing the Kickstarter in the slightest.  I've heard that the developers will be releasing a second campaign in October, which is supposed to be somewhat less linear than the first campaign. Since I'm a Kickstarter backer, I'll be getting it for free. I'm looking forward to playing it, and to releasing my own epic neo-noir cyberpunk adventures.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Shadowrun Returns: Mage For Hire

Mage for Hire. That's what the augmented reality sign hovering over my front door says, at least on the days when it hasn't been hacked or knocked out by some citywide virus. But that's just the way things are in the Sprawl: nothing's permanent. Not your money, not your luck, not your friends, and definitely not your life.


Yeah, that's me up there. A little rough around the edges, but it could be worse. Guy I used to work with, lost one of his eyes in a dust-up with a demon. He couldn't afford a bio replacement or even a decent cyber job. He scraped together enough cash to have the doc install this ancient Russian military optic prosthetic. Big ugly thing, glows red all the time like a stuck streetlight. Even when he's sleeping. Doesn't do much for his love life.


Why did I have to come to Seattle? Looks like every other desolate urban graveyard I've ever tried to earn a nuyen from. Nice to know where the organ dealer's place is, since this is probably where I'll wind up. Or at least parts of me will.


Yup. Another day, another street gang. They've replaced so much of their blood with drugs that they're just walking addictions with guns. Have to respect the guns, though. I may have learned to pull raw energy out of the fabric of the universe and hurl big screaming bolts of it across the street, but a stray bullet will still put a quick end to my day.


Was there ever a time when people actually went to the cops to help them with this kind of problem? Or have people like this guy on the corner always been on their own? Am I going to help him? Sure. But tomorrow, someone else will be along to muscle in on this territory. Nothing ever really changes.


At least there are some people in this town who aren't afraid to stand up for themselves; to say "no" when they know they deserve better. This one certainly deserved better than the guy she just dumped. She deserves better than me, too, so I'll just move along.

I still don't know why I'm in Seattle. Even if I find what I'm looking for, it won't change anything. Nothing every really changes. But maybe I'll feel better about it when I'm done.

Or maybe I'll just be in the clearance bin at the organ dealer's.

[P.S.: I'm really loving Shadowrun Returns.]

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Game Design is Hard

I'm trying to build a little casual game in Unity, and it's not going to be just another match-3 or time-management or tower-defense game. As a result, it's proving difficult to find the magic something that transforms this from a programming exercise to a fun, addictive game.

I should probably try to read some books on the subject. In the established, often-used game paradigms, the action/reward cycle is pretty solid. For instance, for a first-person-shooter, there's clearly something inherently compelling about the combination of maze-exploring and bad-guy-shooting that is instantly appealing to a lot of folks.

Since I'm not making an FPS (or any other easily-classified game) it's not obvious what I need to do in order to make the game more entertaining. I can't just say "add more ninjas" (well ... I suppose you can always add more ninjas). I need to try to figure out what to add/remove/change so that clicking the mouse becomes fun, and I feel like I don't even have the language I need to discuss the issue.

So it's research time for me. At least Unity is giving me the chance to focus on the actual game, rather than forcing me to burn time trying to get libraries to link or some such silliness.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Stone of Names: July Status Report

I'm now shopping my manuscript to literary agents, which is the least fun part of the writing process. Basically this phase is several months of sending my work to total strangers so that they can tell me it's unsellable.

To be fair to the literary agents: they have a much clearer view of the market than I do. That's their job. If they don't think they can sell my manuscript to a publisher, that's a business decision, not necessarily a quality decision. To say that a book is enjoyable is not the same thing as saying it's sellable.

The question at this point is: will every agent (and every publisher) agree that they can't sell this book? Or is there someone out there who would be willing to try?

I've sent 20-ish query letters, and I've received 5 rejections. Some folks are likely to let their silence substitute for a rejection, and so I won't be hearing back from everyone. It's not an auspicious beginning, but it's possible that I haven't really tried hard enough yet. It's possible that I really need to send a hundred or so letters before I can really claim to have tried my best.

But I'm not sure I have the patience to send that many queries, given that I could have this book up on Amazon within a couple of days if I wanted to.

I expect I'll keeping querying for a while, but not indefinitely. If I can't interest an agent by the end of the year, I'll get my cover art together and self-publish. There's a very real possibility that I won't sell more than a few dozen copies if I self-publish, but it's better than letting the book sit on my hard drive doing nothing.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Review: The Ball

Whenever I see folks posting about their favorite OUYA games, I see the same names come up again and again are Towerfall (a nice enough game, but I think you really need four players to make it shine), BombSquad (which is fun, but I suck at it), and Amazing Frog (which must be getting reviewed by people on much stronger medications than I am).

What I never see mentioned is The Ball, which is a shame, because I think it's the best game I've seen on the platform so far. This is a port of a PC game, and it's likely that the PC version has better graphics and tighter controls, but I thought it worked quite well on the OUYA. It's a first-person puzzle game, where you are running around a subterranean complex, overcoming obstacles and smashing mummies with the help of a giant rolling metal ball.

Aside from this massive sphere, your only tool for solving puzzles is a magic artifact that you can use either to pull the ball toward you from any distance, or to push just about anything away from you. The "push" feature only works at point-blank range, so if you're hoping to use it to knock mummies around, prepare to get up close and personal.

I was constantly surprised and pleased at how much variety they got out of just these simple tools. The game is a long series of challenging puzzles, with a few action sequences thrown in to keep you from getting too complacent. (Thankfully, there were very few jumping-platform puzzles, which I detest with a passion.)

I think this is a must-play for anyone who liked Portal. The Ball doesn't have Portal's humor, and the storytelling isn't as strong, but the puzzles are solid and there's plenty of them.

My only problems with the game were the unresponsive jump button (there was a noticeable lag between hitting the jump button and actually jumping, though this could have been an OUYA controller issue) and the final puzzle, which was a fairly tedious trial-and-error thing (and I will gladly send the solution to anyone who wants it; I solved it on my own mostly due to a few lucky guesses).

There are plenty of fun little arcade games on the OUYA, but The Ball provides a more long-term, immersive, and thoughtful experience, and was well worth my $10.

Monday, July 8, 2013

You Kids Get Out of My Playground

Let's say that, by some miracle, my novel becomes a bestseller. Let's say, in fact, that it becomes an instant sensation, and that readers all over the world are so fascinated with the characters and the world that they start producing their own art based on my book: drawings, and short stories, and games, and so forth. (Disregard for a moment that there's no Tolkien-level world-building in my current novel; this is all just a thought experiment.) At this point, my book has become something of a modern myth, a story that everyone is familiar with at some level, to the point where my characters and situations are used in everyday conversation.

At that point, is the fictional world in the book still mine?

I'm sure that it's mine legally. But is it really mine, all mine? Hasn't it become part of our common culture? I created it, yes, but should I be allowed to dictate how, precisely, it can and cannot be used? Should I be allowed to impose a blockade around it, so that no other creative works can be derived from it? What if someone else is able to produce something based on my book that has its own value, its own merit? If so many people are fascinated by the world that I've created, do I have the right to stop someone else from telling a different story in the same world that's just as enjoyable as mine?

I've only recently come across this story from 2008, where a Harry Potter fan decided to produce a lexicon of words and terms from the Harry Potter universe, and J. K. Rowling shut him down. The linked article quotes her as saying that "this book constitutes the wholesale theft of 17 years of my hard work."

Well. I would suggest that a collection of words and definitions is hardly wholesale theft; if the would-be author had simply photocopied all seven books cover to cover, I might agree with this statement; otherwise it smells a bit of hyperbole.

Ms. Rowling is also quoted as saying "I went to court to uphold the right of authors everywhere to protect their own original work. The proposed book took an enormous amount of my work and added virtually no original commentary of its own." If that's the case, would she be okay if I produced a totally original Harry Potter book, with a new story? That would be quite a bit of original commentary, wouldn't it? Surely she would be okay with that?

But of course she wouldn't. I would get hit with a cease and desist letter so hard that you'd hear the impact on Mars. Ms. Rowling didn't take action here because she was concerned that someone was copying her work. Her motivation is clear from the words she used: specifically, "protect" and "theft".

This is about money. Someone else was going to make money off of the Potterverse. Was Ms. Rowling planning to write her own Potteresque dictionary? Certainly not; she's fled from the realm of fantasy and whimsy into the more respectable neighborhood of literary fiction. Was this proposed dictionary going to render Ms. Rowling penniless? No, I expect that her accountants would never even feel the bump. But if she lets this one labor of love onto the market, it opens the door for further "theft". If she doesn't maintain her fence around Hogwarts, then everyone will be inside.

And that would be bad because...?

The world is full of creative people with great ideas. If they're inspired and excited by a certain idea, should we prevent them from sharing their creations with the world, just because someone else got there first?

(P.S.: For a much more eloquent presentation of this discussion, check out Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow.)


Sunday, June 30, 2013

Further progress with our OUYA

We were able to get our PS3 controllers working with our OUYA, which was fairly straightforward once we had the procedure right. Now we have enough controllers in the house to play some of the 4-player OUYA games, should we so choose.

We also got the OUYA version of Plex working. For this, we had to plug the OUYA into our home network with an Ethernet cable. The OUYA's own wireless connection, for whatever reason, was just too slow to allow streaming video. With the Ethernet cable attached, Plex seemed to work just as well as it does on our PS3.

One unhappy moment, though: while playing the first-person puzzle game The Ball, I got a prompt asking me whether I wanted to purchase the game so that I could play the additional levels. I didn't see a price listed on the screen, so I clicked the Purchase button, assuming that the system would then display the price and prompt me to confirm. Nope: the system just went ahead and charged my credit card, with only a brief message that might have told me how much I'd been charged if it had remained on-screen long enough for me to read it. Every other OUYA game has been pretty up-front about how much a purchase was going to cost, so I'm going to send a bug report in for this particular game. Fortunately it was only $10, and I'm enjoying the game, but I really would have preferred to know ahead of time what the damage was going to be.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

First impressions: OUYA

Yes, we have an OUYA now:


If you're not sure what I'm talking about, you can get the lowdown on their website; the quick explanation is that the OUYA is a $99 Android-based gaming console, focused on independent game developers, where all games have some amount of play available for no cost.

The question I hear most about the OUYA is "Why should I bother getting an OUYA when I can just play Android games on my phone?" I have three answers for that:

  1. Exclusive games. Some of the games available on the OUYA system are only available for OUYA.
  2. Controller support. Many of these games are developed to either support or to require a full game controller.
  3. Multiplayer. There are several multiplayer games for the OUYA that allow you to sit on the couch and enjoy the game with up to three of your friends.
Right now there are a few great multiplayer games that are quick to learn and quick to play:
  • Stalagflight: this is a game about jumping from falling boulder to falling boulder, trying to get as high as possible without falling in the lava. I tried it by myself and thought it was frustrating and pointless, but when one of my friends joined in, suddenly it was challenging and hilarious.
  • Towerfall: this is a 2D retro-styled deathmatch game about bouncing around the screen and shooting arrows at your opponent. It's the kind of game that will get more interesting as you and your opponents practice and develop your skill. It was amusing with two players; it would probably be even better with three or four players.
  • BombSquad: this game is mostly about running around the screen throwing bombs at bad guys, though there are supposedly a number of game variants. I say "supposedly" because we haven't been able to beat the first level yet.
  • No Brakes Valet: this is a super-simple, low-tech game that probably took less than a day to develop, but practically justifies the purchase of the OUYA by itself. It's a game about trying to park cars that come flying into a small parking lot at high speed. The two-player version is pure vehicular mayhem. We've played this dozens of times and we're smiling and laughing every time.
I've also been enjoying Deep Dungeons of Doom (a simple but challenging RPG) and the Secret of Universe Alpha (which is a bit amateurish and unpolished, but somehow addictive all the same). I'm looking forward to trying The Ball (a first-person puzzler) and Rose (a point and click adventure game)

Not every game is a winner. Pinball Arcade doesn't respond quickly enough to the controller triggers to make the game playable; Wizorb would work much better with a real mouse. And since it's very easy for folks to publish a game on the OUYA, there are one or two games that don't merit the effort of downloading, like BarleyBreak (an extremely no-frills version of the 15 puzzle).

There are a number of features of the OUYA we haven't tried yet. It's supposed to support alternate Bluetooth controllers such as the PS3 controller; the OUYA controllers work fine (now that some of the pre-launch issues have been resolved) but they're not the fine-tuned works of engineering that the PS3 controllers are. Also, there are a number of media-streaming applications for the OUYA, like Plex; it will be interesting to see how the OUYA implementation of Plex compares to the PS3 version that we're currently using.

Overall I'm very satisfied with the console, and I hope that it's a success for the game developers who chose to support it, because I'd love to see the console mature as developers continue to explore the potential of the system. Personally I'd like to see more turn-based RPG's and strategy games; we'll see what the future will bring. And since I have all the tools I need to write my own games for the OUYA, maybe something I've written will one day appear on the OUYA download screens.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Potpourri

Very busy these days. New project at work with a too-short deadline. Query letters for Stone of Names going out to agents. (Crossing of one's fingers on my account will be appreciated.) Unity continuing to satisfy all of my expectations. Fate Core and Fate Accelerated are on my hard drive, begging to be used. Civilization 5. Shadowrun Returns should be released Real Soon Now, and my neighborhood Target should be happy to sell me an OUYA in a couple of weeks.

So if I could just take a year or two off, I might be able to get caught up on all of this.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Skipping Over The Stupid Parts

For anyone who hasn't heard yet, the latest free version of the Unity game development tool allows export to Android and iOS platforms for no additional cost. As a result, I've been able to essentially completely rebuild the game I've been working on, minus the optimization and library issues, in less than eight hours. Runs smooth as silk and I wrote less then 50 lines of code.

This is why I like Unity so much. The Java-based version of my game had a substantial amount of code devoted to basic, Game Development 101 problems, like maintaining frame rate, or rendering 3d objects, or creating and destroying the objects necessary for each level of the game. I hate spending time on this stuff; this is all basic game housekeeping nonsense that's been written countless times before, and I resent having to waste effort on it when I want to be assembling the actual game. I want to pay attention to the game mechanics, introducing challenge and rewards and appeal.

What I don't want to do is what I've been faced with in the Java version of the game: spending endless hours staring at source code, reading through forums, and conducting experiments just to figure out how to make a physics library perform properly.

This should give me the edge that I need to actually finish this game and have a reasonably stable product, rather than an unreliable mess that I really shouldn't be installing on anyone's devices.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Utopia

So, yesterday, I suggested that if we really want to ensure the survival and well-being of all of humanity, we can't do it through legislation; we have to do it through invention.

But even if we modify ourselves so that we no longer suffer from hunger, or thirst, or heatstroke or hypothermia or disease or genetic disorders or any of that, there's still plenty of room for misery and abuse.

We can provide free access to goods once we invent universal fabricators; we can provide free access to information once we ... actually, we've already (mostly) solved that one, so, yay for us.

But we still haven't prevented us from being jerks to each other. Passing laws doesn't solve that problem. It's illegal to murder someone in the United States, but murders occur every day. Laws don't prevent offences, they just ensure that offences are punished.

Even if you re-engineer our bodies so that we can't be killed, and that we can't suffer the effects of violence, we still have plenty of ways to hurt each other. Discrimination and hatred can be purely psychological and can be just as devastating.

So what then? Do we tinker with our own minds so that we are incapable of hatred, or conversely, so that we are incapable of feeling depressed or afraid or insulted? In fact, if we're all perfectly content all the time, then we wouldn't even have greed or discrimination or anything like that, would we?

If we've altered our emotions so that we no longer feel the impulses that would lead us to act like jerks to each other, then what do we become? Utopia is universal happiness; do we have to get there by making it literally impossible for anyone to be unhappy?

Alternately, is it at all reasonable to assume that at some point, we will be so philosophically mature that we will all just naturally choose to be nice to each other? This seems like wishful thinking. If you invent some sort of pill that makes you immortal and indestructible and you give it away for free, everyone is going to want one. If you devise a philosophy of non-violence and mutual respect, not everyone is going to buy into it.

So if the best you can ever hope to do is to eliminate humanity's basic physical needs, have you really improved the human condition? Or have you just given folks different things to be unhappy about?

Is all progress futile, since it accomplishes nothing more than to give us different props and scenery to use when we're acting out our various tragedies?

Isn't that a cheerful thought to start the weekend with?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Science Party!

No, not this kind of Science Party.

It is sometimes painful for me to listen to certain political enthusiasts. From the Far Left, I'll hear either "Our ancestors had all the wisdom we ever need to know!" or "Big Pharma is suppressing the truth!" From the Far Right, it's "Academia is a liberal stronghold!" or "Your science is an assault on my faith!" Where, I ask myself, is the political party of dedicated and thoughtful scientists?

And then I think about it, and I realize that this hypothetical group of scientists wouldn't bother trying to put together a political party. If your goal is to govern the country by scientific principles, you have to confront the fact that a representative democracy is the wrong form of government. Science isn't a popularity contest. Science is about tests and studies and mathematics, not about who looks best on television or who can scare the voters most effectively.

If you want to improve the country, is gaining control of the government even a appropriate step toward your goal? First of all, in the world of the 21st century, the fate of our nation is tied tightly to the fate of all of our global neighbours. So fixing just one nation's government isn't sufficient. And, possibly, working through the conventional established means of government isn't necessary.

And what is the goal? A rational group of scientists would first clearly articulate the effect that they want to create, and then determine the appropriate means to achieve that effect.

Let's assume that our group of scientists wants to change the world for the better. Can we define that in more concrete terms?

A simple, reasonable mission statement might be "to ensure that humanity survives indefinitely, and that all human beings are able to enjoy excellent physical and mental health." That seems like a goal that's difficult for anyone to find fault with. It seems to suggest other smaller goals that our existing political parties claim to be working toward, like health care, and environmental conservation, and the preservation of liberty and privacy.

But let's stay focused on the big picture: guaranteed survival of the species, and guaranteed mental and physical health for all. Looking at this statement alone, it looks like we're not talking about gun legislation or intellectual property rights. It looks like we're talking about re-engineering the species.

Because, of course, the human animal is a pretty fragile thing. We can only exist in an extremely narrow range of environmental conditions, and if any of those conditions change in the slightest, it's bye-bye humanity. If the world's climate changes, or some lethal new disease breaks out, or a giant rock hits the planet, or we run out of fossil fuel, or whatever, we humans need to survive.

We need to be able to power and repair ourselves with simple and sustainable means. We need to be able to correct serious mental issues through processes that are more effective than cocktails of pharmaceuticals.

If each of us was indestructible, self-repairing and self-powering, independent from complicated food chains or medical procedures, how does that affect the world? What if you don't need shelter, or food, or water, or air?

It's not quite sufficient to solve all of our problems, I think. Poverty is no longer a curse for these version 2.0 humans; they will survive in perfect comfort without houses or antibiotics or macaroni-and-cheese. We've eliminated need; but we haven't eliminated want. People will still want to build things, to travel, to dress nice and watch HBO and trade up to the latest iPhone. All of those things still require labor and resources, which means that there's still room for the haves and the have-nots.

Not to mention that we humans don't really need excuses to fight with each other. We will gladly kill each other based purely on our belief systems. And no matter how indestructible we make ourselves, we'll always find a way to destroy each other.

Which means that either human re-engineering is not the solution, or it's not the whole solution. I'll have to consider a little further; clearly our hypothetical team of scientists has quite a lot of work ahead of them.


Monday, June 3, 2013

Stone of Names: June Update

Now that I'm ready to start approaching agents with my manuscript, I have to accomplish a couple of tasks that I've never enjoyed: writing a query letter and writing a synopsis. The synopsis isn't so bad; it's just a compressed retelling of the story, about a paragraph per chapter or so. I find query letters inherently discouraging, though. I could have written the next great American novel, a work of such beauty and perfection that it would top the bestselling charts for the next century, but if my query letter doesn't stand out above everyone else's query letter, my masterpiece is going nowhere.

I expect I should regard the query letter as an opportunity to demonstrate my writing skills, by forcing me to convey a compelling story idea in 250 words or less. However, I expect that every literary agency is deluged with query letters, and it seems to me that even if I have a snappy query letter, I have to catch the right agent on the right moment of the right day in order to get a note back asking me to see the whole manuscript for review.

So I'm skimming web site such as Query Shark for tips and to-do's (and more importantly, things not to do), polishing my 250 words, and crossing my fingers.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

So Is It Still Okay To Fight Vampires?

The second installment of Tropes vs. Women In Video Games is out now. I'm interested in this series not only as a consumer of video games, but as a wannabe storyteller. The story elements called out by Anita Sarkeesian are both troubling and overused. As a storyteller, my job is not only to understand the messages I'm conveying, but also to avoid the blind repetition of cliches. I've been watching this series and trying to understand the underlying message and hazards behind the "damsel" tropes that Sarkeesian has been presenting, so that I can build better, more inclusive stories.

This latest episode calls out recent uses of the "male character must rescue female character" and "male character must avenge dead female character" elements in video games, as well as the "male character must attack/kill female character for her own good" element. The point here is not that women should never be killed or abducted in video games; the point is to understand how violence is being used in the story, and whether it's being used to confine women to the role of "helpless prize" or "innocent victim".

I've been trying to consider how a simple story premise might be expanded into a stereotypical male power fantasy, and how that same story might be rewritten to retain the core concepts but maintain a healthy viewpoint toward all genders. My little thought experiment goes something like this:

Start with this core concept for a game: a female character is turned into a vampiric monster; the monster then goes on a spree of violence until it is destroyed by a male character. By itself, this isn't particularly egregious; the antagonist could easily be male, and there's no real gender-focused violence here. Vampires are bad; the player destroys vampires.

So let's expand the story using the typical stereotypes. The female character was romantically involved with the male character until she was transformed. Flashbacks during the game depict her as pleasant and pure and virtuous: little more than a white dress and a smile. After her transformation, she dresses in a lot of revealing leather and less, flirts aggressively, and cackles a lot. The player chases her around the game world, fighting her minions, foiling her plans, until he catches her and defeats her at last. When she is rendered helpless, she reverts momentarily to her former "nice girl next door" image, long enough to beg the male character to put her out of her misery. An on-screen icon then shows the player the necessary button to hit in order to kill his former love.

That wasn't hard. Practically wrote itself, didn't it? And I've managed to use the same female character to fulfill three unpleasant roles: first in the flashbacks, she's someone's rather empty view of the "ideal girlfriend"; second, when she's a vampire, she's high-intensity eye candy (and since she's sexually aggressive in this role, turning the traditional sex roles upside down, she's extra threatening); third, at the end, the game gives the player the power to commit a final act of violence against a helpless female character. This last act of violence is justified because it's necessary to "fix" the female character, and because, after all, she's literally asking for it, thus vindicating the ever-popular excuse of the violent male.

Even if you're not convinced about the misogyny, you have to admit that the story as presented looks a lot like twelve or fifteen other games. It's just a collection of stuff everyone has done over and over; the same tawdry story elements recycled over and over to establish the same effect.

So how do we rescue this game from itself? At first it seems as if the obvious thing to do is just to reverse the genders of the two characters, but I don't like this solution, as it seems to suggest that this kind of treatment is offensive when directed at women, but it's fine when directed at men.

My solution is to keep the character genders, but to make the flashback sequences playable. Furthermore, the flashback sequences are playable as the female character. Make her a vampire hunter in her own right, searching for the clues necessary to destroy a master vampire, little suspecting that she will become one herself. She's on her own, fighting her own battles, solving her own problems. Develop her character a little; make her a real, interesting person. We switch back and forth between the flashback scenes with the female character, and the current-time scenes with the male character, and we find that the male character is executing a plan devised by the female character. She discovers the secret to destroying a master vampire, and just before she is captured and transformed, she leaves her notes where the male character will find them.

In the current-time scenes, the vampire that was once the female character is horrific, an inhuman monster. Nothing feminine or seductive remains; there is nothing left of the female character to save. She was destroyed in her quest to defeat evil, but in the end, she is just as much of a hero as the male character, since it is her notes and plans that help the male character to destroy the vampiric monster in the end.

In my opinion, not only is this a more original and interesting concept, it also allows both female and male characters to share the role of protagonist during different parts of the story. The female character is not here as scantily-clad scenery, not as a prize to be won, not as a misbehaving woman to dominate and correct. We've built a more gender-inclusive game, and it turned out to be a better game in the bargain.

I'm still missing the ace game development team necessary to build this game, but at least the thought experiment was interesting.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Games Are Art Too

The mediums of theater, literature, and cinema are all used for storytelling, and have all been subjected to detailed, academic, artistic analysis. You can find books and college classes dedicated to the analysis of the themes and characters of plays, books, and movies.

When will we start seeing that kind of scholarly attention paid to the stories told in video games? Yes, most video games don't have a story worth discussing, but there are a few diamonds out there in that digital rough. There are developers out there who are genuinely interested in telling deep, meaningful stories through games, and I hope that one day, they receive as much respect as any author, playwright, or filmmaker.

The problem, of course, is that while it's still possible to read a Shakespeare play, or watch Citizen Kane, it's sometimes difficult to experience older, classic games, due to system incompatibilities. Also, the act of curating old, out-of-print titles (sometimes called abandonware) is frequently considered to be piracy.

I believe there will always be folks out there willing to build emulators to support well-loved games of the past. It would be a shame, though, if some of those stories were to completely disappear because the copyright holders will neither permit free distribution of old games or provide any way for the games to be purchased and played legally.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Movie Review: Jack Reacher

Spoilers ahead, although I hesitate to call them "spoilers," given that this movie is essentially a two-hour string of tough-guy movie cliches.

What a manly movie this is. From the bar fight where Reacher (played by Tom Cruise) handily defeats five troublemakers, to the abduction of the female lead (forcing Reacher to race into action), to the climactic duel where Reacher throws away his gun so that he can beat up the villain with his own bare hands, it's clear that this is a movie made for men about men who do manly things.

In fact, excluding the women who are killed in the first five minutes of the film, and excluding the women who are only on-screen long enough to gaze adoringly at Jack Reacher, there are only two female characters in this film. There's the flirty-but-ill-fated young woman who is killed halfway through the film in order to give Reacher something to feel manly guilt and grief over (during her non-dead screen time, she is asked why she allows men to use her so badly, and she replies: "It's just what girls like me do."). Then there's the female lead, the plucky lawyer who, near the end of the film, disobeys Reacher's instructions by investigating the Big Conspiracy on her own, and is almost immediately tasered and held prisoner. Silly female character; if she had just done what Reacher had told her to do, she would have been fine.

What I find just as disturbing is the subtext in this film that seems to tell us that for certain kinds of crime, it's appropriate and necessary to cast aside due process and the rule of law. Early in the film, Helen (the female lawyer, played by Rosamund Pike) asks Reacher to help her investigate a horrific crime in which a sniper kills five random people. Helen will be defending the shooter; Reacher tells her that he will only agree to assist her if she speaks to the families of the victims. The movie then dedicates a fair amount of screen time to walking us through the innocence of the victims, the tragedy of their deaths, and the grief of their families. The father of one victim is furious at Helen for choosing to defend the shooter; when Helen returns to Reacher, she expresses some doubt over whether the shooter deserves a fair trial.

Reacher does agree to investigate this crime, in stereotypical lone-wolf fashion, and by the end of the film, he's run afoul of the law himself, and is trying to beat the bad guys while staying clear of the authorities. To underline the whole "the law cannot interfere with the anger of a righteous man" message, when a crucial antagonist informs Reacher that he will probably not be convicted for the crimes he was party to, Reacher simply shoots the man. Helen asks him, "What about bringing the guilty to justice?" and Reacher says "I just did."

I could write this off as typical tough-guy "taking the law into his own hands" stuff, but the heavy-handed indictment of the legal process, as demonstrated by the "interviewing the victims" scenes, puts an entirely different spin on the whole thing. It was merely weeks ago that important men in my government were publicly stating that due process can be dispensed with for certain type of people and certain types of crime. Such statements, combined with the ever-widening definition of what constitutes a terrorist, give me what I believe to be legitimate concern over the longevity of my human rights.

If America is quietly giving up its founding principles, I'd really prefer that we didn't have folks standing up in movie theaters and cheering about it.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Deadlines and Dragons

I don't know if I'll get a chance to blog much this week; I'm scrambling to finish preparation for a Talislanta adventure I'm running on Friday. (For those unfamiliar with Talislanta, I'll just say briefly that while the official rules vary between elegant and awkward, the setting itself is exceptional.)

Unfortunately, I've put myself in the position again where I've planned the adventure around one of the PC's, and that particular player is going to be absent. Clearly I'm going to have to start putting character development into optional side-stories that can be easily jettisoned or postponed. I can recover this particular adventure, but it won't be quite as dramatic as I had planned.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Four Colors, Hold the Capes

I've had fun running superhero roleplaying games in the past, and from time to time I'm tempted to try it again. But one thing has been bugging me about the superhero genre: the costumes. It strains my suspension of disbelief to tell a story about people who put on tights and masks before they go out and save the world.

I know that this may seem to be a minor quibble, when we're talking about a genre with world-threatening supervillains and alien invasions every other week, but it bugs me nevertheless. As a thought experiment, I've been wondering if I can take the costumes out of a superhero game and wind up with something that still appeals to me.

I expect I need to enumerate the elements that do appeal to me in a superhero game, so here goes:
  • The setting should include a little (or a lot) of everything, for no good reason other than it's cool. A superhero setting should include elements of science and magic, future and past. There should be no reason not to have an adventure that includes aliens, or gorillas, or time travel, or pirates, or even alien gorilla time-travelling pirates. Ridiculous and impossible plot elements should be status quo.
  • The heroes (and their enemies) should have amazing abilities. I wasn't sure whether to include this one. Is it really necessary for the main characters to have anything more than good training and equipment? Probably not, but I think you lose a lot of the comic-book feel if you take out the amazing abilities. The heroes have to be more than just the best of the best; they have to be unique somehow. And when they go into action, it has to be more than firefights and car chases; there must be spectacular feats of skill and power. But again, without the capes, you have to think a little harder about just what kind of abilities the heroes can really have, and how they get them. My first requirement (the "everything goes" setting) helps a lot here. You can't shoot energy blasts from your hands just because you're a superhero, but maybe you can because you're an ancient Greek sorceror, or you come from Alpha Centauri, or you invented some nifty cybernetic implants, or you're the result of a secret bioengineering program.
  • The main characters must use their own resources and their own methods to stop threats that no one else can. I think the phrase "their own resources and their own methods" is key here. I think a superhero game is more interesting to play when the heroes aren't working as part of a government agency or greater authority. They can cooperate with the police and the military and so forth, but they shouldn't be subservient to those organizations. This one is more challenging to do without the capes. When we label a group of heroes as "superheroes" and give them flashy costumes, we seem to automatically assign them a special role in the game world without looking for justification. Why, exactly, would the mayor or the President or anyone else come to these people for help? Why is it okay for them to rampage around the city and defy all laws concerning search and seizure and due process and such? If you take away the capes, you force the group to really think about why their group of heroes has this special role, and I think it would make for a more interesting story in the bargain.
It almost sounds like I'm describing a game that's just "superheroes in plain clothes", but that's not what I'm going for. It's not just the costumes that bother me (though it's mostly the costumes); it's the story shorthand that the costumes represent. If you want the main characters to do all things I've described above, in the world I've described, then you really need to ask: why are they doing these things? Why are they risking their lives to save the world? What gives them the moral authority to take the law into their own hands? Why are they allowed to run around the world meddling in people's affairs? The answer needs to be more than "because they're superheroes".

The masks are hiding more than the faces of the heroes; they're hiding story development that might make for a more interesting and unusual game.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Warehouse 13

I love Warehouse 13. I'd be willing to say that out of every show that the Syfy channel has produced, Warehouse 13 is my favorite (I'd call it a tie with Mystery Science Theater 3000, but MST3K actually originated elsewhere, so I'm not sure it counts). Eureka was entertaining, but the basic formula got pretty repetitive over time; Battlestar Galactica did some amazing things, but wasted too much of my time teasing us with mysteries whose resolution was either disappointing or never occurred at all.

Yes, Warehouse 13 has its flaws. For instance, if Myka and Pete are supposed to be former top-notch Secret Service agents, why are they so bad at basic law enforcement procedures? (Pete, in particular, seems to have never taken even a basic firearms safety course). But my inner critic just seems to retire quietly to another room as soon as I hear the show's theme music.

What is it I love about this show?

The humor is a big draw for me. From the little visual gags they pull off with the informational captions, to Pete's constant clowning around and Claudia's sly self-confidence, it's a rare episode that doesn't have my laughing out loud.

I dig the world-building and the show mythology. Every so often, the show gives out a little more information about Warehouses 1 through 12, and I'd love to play a roleplaying campaign based in any of them.

But most of all, what keeps me watching this show is the camaraderie and relationships between the main characters. I think I was hooked the first time that Artie baked post-mission cookies for the team. The close friendships that tie the team together really warm my cynical little heart.

Warehouse 13 is a big fuzzy blanket I like to crawl under to get warm, and I send my highest compliments to the actors and writers that make it all possible.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Neverwinter: The Foundry

I've unlocked the Foundry in Neverwinter; in other words, I now have access to the tools that allow players to create their own game content. The tools are right in my comfort zone: simple enough to get into quickly, but with enough options and features to allow the creation of something sophisticated. There are still a few glitches -- getting rooms to join together correctly can be a bit tricky in some conditions -- and the purpose of some of the controls is not immediately obvious, but there definitely seems to be enough functionality to produce a D&D dungeon.

The big obstacle, for me, is time: after spending three hours on my first test dungeon, I had nothing but a fairly uninspired array of corridors and monsters. Adding the extra flavor and story is going to take longer. Hopefully, as I get more proficient with the tools, the authoring process will speed up.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Through the (Google) Looking Glass

It seems that most of the news stories I see about Google Glass these days are about privacy and ethics concerns. The common question is, effectively: "Is it acceptable for a someone to carry a concealable video camera around wherever they go?"

I think that these fears are somewhat misplaced. If anyone living in an urban environment thinks that they're not frequently being video-recorded, they're fooling themselves. Also, I honestly don't see how this is much different than the video cameras embedded in most smartphones these days. Should we ban smartphones from public places as well to prevent this kind of casual surveillance?

(As an aside, I think that there are larger issues than just privacy at stake. By allowing people to video-record their everyday lives, are we working toward a world where one's own ability to remember facts becomes obsolete? After all, if you can look up facts online instantly through vehicles such as Wikipedia, and if you gain the ability to digitize and store your own experiences for future reference, is there any need to remember things using your own brain? Will we, as a race, lose the ability to remember things for ourselves, offloading this responsibility to a ubiquitous global cloud of data storage?)

But the most important fact that these discussions seem to overlook is the fact that Google Glass is only one early implementation of a personal, wearable, video input-output device. Even if Google Glass is a commercial flop, or even if some enormous public outcry caused Google to shelve the project, someone else will produce another version of this technology sooner or later -- probably sooner. No matter how uncomfortable some people feel about the Google Glass concept, this idea isn't going to go away. In ten or twenty years, wearable computers will be everywhere, and we'll either have developed some sort of etiquette system around them, or we'll just all pretend they don't exist.

We humans have been working on ways to mechanize ourselves for a long, long time, and we're not going to stop because a bar somewhere in Seattle doesn't like the idea.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

First Impressions: Neverwinter

Just to be clear, I'm not talking about the older Neverwinter Nights games; I'm talking about the new Neverwinter MMO. Also, I've only barely started playing. I have one character at level 11, and that's it, which means there's a lot of the game I haven't seen yet.

But I'm liking what I'm seeing so far. The combat system is more dynamic than most MMO's I've played; constant repositioning is necessary in order to avoid area effect attacks, to take advantage of flanking bonuses, and to get clear of melee opponents so that you can take out the ranged opponents who are slowly killing you. Also, the look-to-aim system and the pace of combat is exhilarating; it's a thrill to race my cleric into the fray, blasting folks with holy light left and right, occasionally calling down a satisfying blast of divine wrath from the heavens.

The powers are loosely derived from the 4th edition D&D rules, and will be familiar to 4th edition players (Lance of Faith, Healing Word, etc.). As might be expected, the at-will/encounter/daily power frequencies have been replaced by more real-time frequencies, where you can get an encounter power off around once every 10 seconds, and a daily power off whenever you accumulate enough power points (for big fights, you might accumulate enough power points to use a daily power more than once in the same fight). This is a pleasant nod to players of the tabletop game. During one particular skirmish, a menacing-looking enemy came onto the screen, and I found myself trying to guess whether I should burn my daily power on it or hold the daily back until later in the scenario -- just like in the tabletop game.

The Foundry system that allows players to build their own quests is something I'm really looking forward to trying. I ran through one Foundry quest, and found a number of promising features, including dialogue trees, sub-quests, and even scripted events. Only players who have a character at level 15 can build quests in the Foundry, though, so I'll have to wait a little longer for that privilege.

The game is microtransaction-supported, with the typical options to spend real money to buy mounts and special clothing and such. So far, though, it looks like you get get quite a lot of play without spending a penny.

Once I get into the professions system and the Foundry, and once I've had a chance to participate in a few more multi-player parties, I may have more to say, but at this early stage, I think the game is well worth a look.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Stone of Names: May Status Update

The editing phase for my novel is stretching on longer than I had estimated. The feedback from my beta readers gave me the chance to look at the novel through new eyes, and showed me several areas where things were unclear or inconsistent. I'm fixing those now, and I expect to be done within another week or two. If I get more beta feedback, I'll keep editing; otherwise it will be time for me to give the book one last read-through myself, and then call it done.

I have a general idea for two sequels to Stone of Names, and I should probably try coming up with an outline for them just to see if I actually feel like writing them. If I do managed to get Stone of Names published, either on the Kindle store or by more traditional means, it would be good to have another book on the way so that I can build up an audience. Of course, there's no reason my next book needs to be a Stone of Names sequel, but it's an idea worth pursuing.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Open Letters

Dear Authors of the Software Library I'm Working With,

If you provide a base class that I need to subclass in order to provide certain functionality, and your base class has a simple getter and setter method (such as getDebugMode and setDebugMode) whose purpose is obviously just to encapsulate a private int within the class, then please do not declare these methods as pure virtual and force me to implement them. Even assuming that there was a legitimate reason to include functionality in these methods besides the obvious, there's no reason not to provide a default implementation which just gets and sets a private int. Forcing me to implement textbook one-line getter/setter methods makes me feel like I'm being forced to participate in a Computer Science 101 exam.

Regards,
Don

...

Dear Patrons of The Gym I Go To,

For whatever reason, the towel supplies at our gym are somewhat limited, and experience has shown that the gym laundry service can occasionally be unreliable. There have been several occurrences during peak hours where the locker room has been without towels for lengthy periods of time, which , I'm sure you'll agree, is inconvenient for everyone involved.

To that end, for the past several years, every available surface in the locker room has been plastered with signs requesting that all patrons limit themselves to one towel. It is impossible to attend the gym without being confronted by one of these reminders of the scarcity of supply and of the need to be mindful of the existence of your fellow guests.

So what, exactly, goes through your mind when you take two or three towels for yourself? Are you being deliberately hostile to the rest of us, or have you somehow managed to convince yourself that the extra towels you took are some sort of magic towels that automatically reproduce themselves after you take them? Or is there something inherently special and valuable about your existence that means that it's more important for you to use an extra towel just to dry your feet while you get dressed, than it is for someone else to get to work on time?

I hope that you will take the time to contemplate these questions and take the appropriate actions in the future.

Regards,
Don

...

Dear Creator of the Universe,

I look forward to discussing several implementation flaws in your product at some point in the future. I have several suggestions for a patch or hotfix.

I am not at this time demanding a refund, as I intend to be using your product indefinitely; however, I believe that there are several opportunities for improving the overall experience for all of your registered users.

Regards,
Don

Monday, April 29, 2013

Review: Crimson: Steam Pirates

Crimson: Steam Pirates is a turn-based naval combat game from the fine folks at Harebrained Schemes. It's available both on the Apple App Store and on the Chrome Web Store, so it's playable on the PC. It's an enjoyable game, but I'd really like to see a more full-featured sequel.

As you might have guessed from the game title, there is a steampunky theme to the game, but if you prefer, you can think of it as alt-history pulp action. You take the role of a pirate captain, set loose in the Caribbean with a colorful crew and a fantastic array of vessels and weapons, including steam-powered dreadnoughts, airships, and lightning guns. For each mission, you are given a few ships, a few officers, and a few mission objectives, and your end-of-mission score is based on how many objectives you completed, how much loot you collected, and how many targets you knocked out.

Actual gameplay is simple: during each turn, you plan out the movement of each vessel under your command. (Anyone who's played Steambirds will find the movement system familiar.) You don't choose firing targets; your ships will automatically fire at any enemy vessels that move into their firing arcs. You do get to choose a special ability for each of your ships to use, which include such abilities as "fire faster" or "move faster" or "repair damage". Each ship can use one special ability a turn, and when an ability is used, it must recharge for a fixed number of turns before it can be used again.

You can also attempt boarding actions, by using the appropriate special ability and then bringing your ship in contact with a chosen enemy ship. The boarding action occurs in three waves: you may designate which of your officers (each with a different combat strength rating) to send out in each wave. If your total strength in a wave is sufficient to defeat the enemy officers in that wave, you win the wave. You must win all three waves to win the boarding action. A successful boarding action gives you control of the enemy vessel, so long as you transfer at least one of your officers to that vessel. Each officer grants one or more special abilities to the ship that officer is in, so you need to think about which abilities are best placed on which vessels.

Overall, I found the difficulty level fairly low. Out of the first eight missions, I won seven on the first try, and had to run the eighth mission twice. The simple strategy of "keep your ships grouped together, keep the enemy in your firing arcs, and use your special abilities often" was sufficient to overcome every challenge.

The first eight missions of Crimson: Steam Pirates are free to play, and took me about two hours to get through. There are two other mission packs available to purchase, each with eight more missions and each costing $2 USD. So if you buy into the whole package, that's $4 for six hours of entertainment. (If the add-on missions are more difficult or lengthy than the first eight, then your play time might be even longer.) Not a bad deal for a solid, if simple, game in my opinion.

What I'd really like to see is a sequel that allows you to choose which ships to deploy on each mission, and to choose the weapons and officers to assign to each ship. This would add some strategic depth as well as some replayability ("I wonder if I could beat that mission using entirely airships...").

As for the story in the game, it's nothing special or memorable, though I expect it would be challenging to develop a deep story with nothing more than a paragraph of narrative at the beginning and end of each mission. More impressive is the collection of lore about the world of Crimson, posted at the Hairbrained Schemes site. There's a timeline of significant events, lists of notable places, persons, and technology, and a quick sketch of the political situation. There's more than enough information here for a solid roleplaying campaign. Once again, I'd love to see a sequel that provides a deeper exploration of the world.

Overall I recommend it: it's turn-based strategy, it's easy to learn and to play, and the art and style bring back fond memories of the alt-history pulp action of Crimson Skies (it's probably safe to say that the similarity is deliberate). For a total price of zero dollars for the first eight missions, it's certainly worth a look.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Really Extremely Very

I expect that most authors are well aware of the problem with the word "very", and other words of that ilk: they don't add anything of substance to the text, and they're a lazy way of providing emphasis. For instance, if an author says "the night was very hot," just how hot is that? One person's "very hot" might be another person's "mildly hot." Is it hot enough that no one can sleep indoors? Is it hot enough that the crickets are panting instead of chirping? Or is "hot" even the right word for the type of weather the author has in mind? How about "sultry"?

I'm actually encountering this same problem in my programming life as well. The contractors who are testing our software can't seem to use the word "confusing" without prefixing it with the word "very", as in "the controls on this page are very confusing." Wouldn't the defect report communicate the same information if it just said "the controls on this page are confusing"? Is there any additional benefit in trying to specify different levels of confusing? If so, why aren't we seeing any reports of UI elements that are merely "confusing" and not "very confusing"?

I've tried to remain vigilant about the use of "very" words in my novel, but recently I've begun to wonder about similar lazy words in my own speech: specifically, profanities. Craig Ferguson has told us that "sometimes, only a cuss word will do," but is this really true? When I use one of the words that you can't say on broadcast television, what information am I trying to convey? "I'm angry"? "I'm disappointed"? "I want you to pay attention to this"? How about when I use words with a religious context, like "God"? I haven't been a practising Catholic in over twenty years; why am I lending emphasis to a statement by referring to a mythological entity whose existence I do not assert any belief in? Wouldn't statements such as "by Odin" or "by Osiris" have the same weight? Why bring religion into it at all?

It might be useful, as an exercise, to try to omit any expletives from my speech and try to achieve the same emphasis and emotional weight through more polite and descriptive words. I don't know if I have the self-discipline to pull it off, but the results would be interesting.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Review: Strikefleet Omega

One of the first things I did after I bought my new Android phone was to install Strikefleet Omega on it. It's by the same people who will, eventually, release Shadowrun Returns. I'm pretty happy with Strikefleet Omega so far. The game concept is similar to Battlestar Galactica; a bunch of bad critters have launched a surprise attack on humanity, and you are in command of the lone surviving human space fleet, warping from star system to star system and fending off increasingly dangerous hostile attacks.

The game starts pretty simple; the bad alien ships fly in from the edges of the screen, you tell your starfighters to go kill them. But then they start layering in complexity; asteroid mining, and extra ships you can warp in as reinforcements, and artillery strikes, and different flavors of bad aliens that require different tactics to destroy. It's an entertaining little "I have ten minutes to kill and I have my cell phone" game. The story is pretty generic, but the character art is well-done, and there are a few little in-jokes for the fans (like star systems named "Plissken" and "Dunkelzahn").

It's a free game, supported by microtransactions, but the microtransactions aren't terribly offensive. You can buy Alloy and MegaCreds; Alloy is used to buy new ship types and to upgrade your ships, and MegaCreds are used to buy perks (special advantages like increased XP or increased fighter damage), to buy special ship types, and to pay for firing your flagship's Deathblossom, a superweapon that kills everything on the screen. The rates they're charging seem kind of expensive for what you get, but so far as I can tell, you can play the game just fine without spending any real money. You earn Alloy during play, so you'll be able to expand and upgrade your fleet just by completing missions. You don't earn MegaCreds past the initial 10 you get when you install the game, but the game is perfectly enjoyable without the premium ships and bonus perks. (You get to choose one free perk every mission anyway, so you're not entirely cut off from that part of the game). It's a shame that you have to spend real money to fire the Deathblossom, but you can think of this as encouragement to improve your play so that you don't have to rely on it.

Overall, well worth my download time, and I recommend it for Android and iPhone users.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Very Busy

I'm going through another edit cycle with my novel, based on recent reader feedback. I'm trying to arrange to do a volunteer shift at a local community center. I'm still arguing with BulletPhysics. There's probably a dozen other things I ought to be doing and don't have time for. If Wolfram and Hart showed up at my door and offered to remove my sleep so that I could have more hours in the day, I'd sign up in a heartbeat.

Maybe not. I do like my sleep. But a few more hours in the day would be nice.