Sunday, November 30, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving from Up North

I'm a city boy. My idea of "roughing it" is staying at a hotel without wi-fi. But several times a year, we go up to Northern Michigan to visit Mary Lynn's folks, and every time, I'm struck by how gosh-darn pretty it is up there:

You'll want to click on this to see more of it. It's a postcard-perfect winter landscape, where dark huddled trees are frosted with snow, and the hills are white as far as you can see. And as the backdrop to all of this, the sun is setting, and there's a luminous silver band between the blanket of clouds and the forested horizon.

You're not getting the full effect of the celestial glow, since I'm not a photographer and this was just my camera phone. Your certainly not hearing what I was hearing, which was mostly nothing. No expressway rumble, no radio or television, no insipid endlessly-looping holiday music. The only sounds were the wind and the river.

It's those moments, far from home and far from my electronic cocoon, that stop me dead in my tracks and make me want to write a poem to try to capture the wonder I'm feeling.

Then I realize that I'm freezing, so I snap a picture with my phone and follow the dog back to the house.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Shooting Offense

If someone wants to express an opinion about video games, it's wrong to threaten to kill them.

The above sentence should not be controversial. No one should have to defend it. No one should even have to say it. Common sense and basic human value should tell you that it is simply wrong to threaten to kill someone for expressing an opinion.

But, of course, that's exactly what someone did.

Whoever wrote that e-mail threatened to kill not only Anita Sarkeesian, but other bystanders as well if Sarkeesian was allowed to deliver her speech.

You would think that everyone who can operate a keyboard would roundly condemn the person who issued this threat. But, of course, the Internet being what it is, you can find crowds of people lining up to justify this.

How do you justify mass murder? Easy. It's because Sarkeesian is a feminist. It's because she's not a real gamer. It's because she cherry-picks examples and alters the facts to back up her argument. It's because games should stand on their own merit, regardless of how politically correct they are.

Even if all of those accusations were true and valid (and that conversation alone could go on for quite a while) none of those things are shooting offenses.

Some of Sarkeesian's opponents (as well as many recent opponents of womens' voices in gaming) like to play a trump card to bypass the whole "murder is wrong" issue: she's lying. There are no death threats. She's inventing the whole thing to gain attention and to back up her position.

This isn't the first time someone has threatened Sarkeesian, though, and it isn't the first time she's reported it. I'll tell you what: you fabricate half-a-dozen death threats against yourself and get law enforcement involved for every single one of them. Let's see how long you last before you get tossed in jail yourself. Sarkeesian's opponents would rather believe that she's a criminal mastermind than believe that there are idiots out there on the internet willing to e-mail her death threats. It shouldn't be hard to guess which one of those alternatives is more likely.

I've tried participating in comment threads where people are justifying the recent violent harassment that's directed against women who dared to express an opinion. Even if I suggest that maybe hacking and doxxing and threatening people is not appropriate in a civil society, I'll find myself shouted down with a variety of accusations:

You're a feminist shill.

Because, apparently, if you post something reinforcing the GamerGate party line, you're a responsible adult voicing an independent, well-considered opinion. But when I express an opinion, I'm acting as a brainwashed agent of the global feminist conspiracy.

(Incidentally, if anyone knows how I can get into the global feminist conspiracy, please put in a good word for me. I'm a decent coder and I have good writing skills.)

Here's another zinger:

That link you posted is from a feminist and/or SJW and it automatically invalidates your argument.

Yes, that accusation is almost word for word. When you post a link defending your position, it's evidence. When I post a link, it ejects me from the discussion. It's nice to be able to arbitrarily set the success/fail rules for a debate, isn't it?

(For those wondering: SJW stands for "social justice warrior". Which is supposed to be an insult, somehow.)

I'm waiting for someone to accuse me of being a white knight so that I can collect the whole set and redeem it for my cash prize.

It defies comprehension. My comprehension, at least. When I say "You shouldn't threaten to shoot a bunch of people to prevent a speech from being held", I cannot conceive why anyone's response would begin with "Yes, but..."

I don't know how to respond to these people. I don't know how to engage with whatever outer-space-alien logic they're using. I don't know how many times we all have to stay "threatening to kill and rape people is wrong" before it starts to sink in.

So I'm saying it again, here, in this blog post. It's a little personal blog that hardly anyone reads, and for all of the reasons shown above, it's not going to convince anyone on the other side of the discussion to change their tune.

But I'm going to say it anyway, because it just doesn't matter whether or not Sarkeesian's opinion about video games, or your opinion, or my opinion, is right or wrong.

If someone wants to express an opinion about video games, it's  wrong to threaten to kill them.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Divinity: Original Sin

I have somewhere around 50 hours in on Divinity: Original Sin, and I'm finding it challenging and rewarding. The turn-based combat requires planning, preparation, and tactics, and is finely balanced so that you're constantly on the edge between failure and success. The co-op is well-implemented, allowing you to coordinate strategy and character builds with a friend. The story is pretty bland fantasy-RPG fare; the best I can say about it is that it gets out of the way quickly so that you can get back to the game.

The one down side is that it can be unforgiving. The fights don't scale to your character level, and if you try to confront certain areas of the map in the wrong order, you'll walk into fights you can't possibly win. During early phases of the game, when it's not entirely clear where you should be going and when, this can result in a series of unavoidable deaths while you figure out where the high-level and low-level enemies are hiding out. Also, it's critical to have a variety of skills and spells across the characters in your party in order to handle a variety of situations.

A few tips for anyone just venturing into this game:

  • Save often. After every fight, at least. Very few fights are cake walks, and it's disheartening to lose a half-hour or an hour of progress due to losing your party in an unexpected ambush.
  • Pick up your two free NPC companions as soon as you reach the main city. You'll need to explore a bit to find them, but you'll need a full party of four to get through the game.
  • Elemental spells (fire, earth, air, water) are critical. Spread these skills across your characters as best you can. You'll need them to counteract enemy elemental spells, and if you use them correctly, you can combine their effects for extra benefits. Combining water and air spells allows you to create electrically-charged fields of water; combining poison and fire can set a significant part of the battlefield ablaze.
  • Get at least one healing spell as soon as you can. Healing potions are expensive early in the game, and you'll need a source of healing that works in-combat and that doesn't use up your precious gold.
  • Learn summon spells as soon as they're available. Just putting extra allies on the field to serve as targets for the enemy can be enormously helpful.
  • Save money for healing potions and resurrect scrolls. Sometimes you're in a position where everyone's healing spell is still on cooldown and you need another hundred or so hit points right now. Also, even though you can reload and try a fight over again if a character dies, sometimes it's easier and quicker just to spend the money for a resurrect, call the character back from the afterlife and keep going.
The game can be frustrating, since it seems to like to teach you to play by killing you repeatedly. But the hard-won victories are all the sweeter, and when your cleverly-planned strategies bring down the big bosses, you'll feel like a proper champion.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Card Hunter: Early Impressions

I'm finding myself addicted to Card Hunter, a game that's a cross between a dungeon-crawl RPG and a collectible card game. If you lost interest in this blog post at the words "collectible card game," just give me a few more paragraphs. You might find that this game isn't quite what you expect.

I'll explain the game first, and then I'll explain what really keeps me coming back.

Card Hunter isn't primarily a competitive, player-vs-player game. There is a PvP mode which can earn you in-game loot, but from my experience, it looks like most of the interesting content is in the single-player campaign mode. In brief, you control a small party of adventurer characters, battling their way through an extensive series of maps and encounters. Your characters' powers are represented by stacks of cards. When it's time for your characters to act, you play a card in order to use a character's ability. The cards represent movement, attacks, spells, healing, curses, and other such game effects.

There are some map tactics involved as well. Each encounter takes place on a battleground containing terrain elements such as walls, rubble, chasms, and other features that you'll need to contend with. You'll need to keep your characters moving to keep the enemy from flanking you, to put your heavy hitters where they can have the most effect, and to rush your healer to where he's needed most.

Leveling up your characters and gaining equipment gives you more cards, and better cards. Your characters' abilities will expand, and their capacity to suffer and inflict harm will increase. By inspecting the cards that your equipment grants, you can find synergies that allow your cards to amplify each other.

The AI is a decent opponent, and the encounters present a wide variety of threats. You'll have to adjust your tactics from battle to battle as you learn the capability of the enemy. All of this, by itself, makes for a rewarding game experience.

But it's the style of the game that pushes my buttons. The game is presented as if it's a classic, old-school roleplaying game, being played in a classic, old-school environment: around a table in someone's basement, with snacks and dice close at hand. At the start of each adventure, you'll get to see the cover of the adventure book you're playing through, and the visual style of these books will be immediately familiar to anyone who played the original D&D. The battlefield itself is presented as a cardboard map, and the players are stand-up cardboard tokens. The illusion even extends off the map, where you can see dice, GM notes, and adventure aid cards from the fictional "real life" Card Hunter game. For gamers of a certain age, this is a fairly faithful re-creation of your childhood.

And that, I think, is what makes Card Hunter special. It celebrates the simple appeal of "kick in the door" RPG's like D&D, and the excitement of opening a new adventure book with your friends. The card-collecting aspect of the game may put off traditional roleplayers, but honestly, it's not a hardcore CCG like Magic. You don't have to hand-assemble a deck, card by card, balancing your mana curve and inventing devastating combos. You just have to drop some swords and armor on your character sheet and sally forth.

Yes, it's a free to play game, but it's not one of those free-to-play games. It doesn't try to penalize you or shame you if you haven't paid up. There's a lot of adventuring to be had for free. I wish more free-to-play games were like this; they should earn your gaming dollars by entertaining you, giving you such a good time that you're glad to kick in just to support the developers.

If you like tactical RPG's, or if you like card-collecting games but you don't want to spend time studying cards and building decks, or if you just have fond memories of making saving throws while eating potato chips, give Card Hunter a look. It won't cost you a dime to take a good, long look and decide for yourself.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Last Video Game

From time to time, I consider abandoning my nice, secure IT job and going into video game development. I have visions of developing original, entertaining games that are well-regarded and are enjoyed around the world.

But after visiting this Tumblr, I see that my opportunities for becoming a video game developer will soon expire, if they have not already.

Game development companies have found that innovation is unnecessary. It is more economical and reliable to find an existing, successful copy, and produce a close copy of that game. If you make your copy quickly enough, you can seize market share both from the original game and from the other copies that will inevitably follow.

As software tools become more sophisticated, we will be able to automate more and more of the development process. Game development companies will develop tools that can find hot games trending on app stores, download them, reverse engineer the code, scrape off any intellectual property, add new graphics and styling, and re-upload the same game with a slightly different name. There will be no software developers any more, simply computer software running 24x7, flooding app stores with homogeneous spam. Even the big development companies will become nothing more than vast arrays of soulless servers, without respect for the craft or for their customers. (Some might suggest that EA has achieved this level of sophistication already.)

The last original game will be developed by a young hobbyist in Ukraine, using a pirated copy of Multimedia Fusion. The game will put the player in the role of a boy with a golf club, standing over a gopher hole. At some random time, a gopher pops out of the hole. The player presses a button, causing the simulated boy to swing his golf club. If the boy swings his golf club at the right time, the club strikes the gopher and sends it flying. The game calculates the player's score based on the distance the gopher travels.

This by itself is not an original idea, but since the author does not include any hint of Bill Murray or Kenny Loggins in the game, there is no obvious copyright violation. The author uploads his game to a few app stores, writes a Facebook post about it, and a few of his friends buy a copy.

This brief uptick in sales alerts automated game development systems all across the globe. Within moments, thousands of Gopher Golfer clones appear. They all appear superficially different: there's a version with a caveman bashing a velociraptor with a club; there's a version with a presidential candidate smacking the opposing presidential candidate; there's a version with a giant gopher teeing off over a miniature golfer; there is a Star Wars themed clone that you have probably already designed in your head while you were reading this.

The real job of the game development engines is to layer on microtransaction content, so the clones of Gopher Golfer all the player to pay real money to buy different clubs, or to buy pets to scare the gopher out of the hole, or to buy snazzy clothes to dress up the simulated golfer.

The casual clones of Gopher Golfer inspire big-budget clones. Within days, every MMO is an endless plain populated by male warriors in elaborate armor and female warriors in tight lingerie, all carrying swords as big as skyscrapers, all lurking outside caves waiting for the demons inside to pop their heads out. A week more, and EA/Bioware releases an epic RPG version of Gopher Golfer, with voice talent provided by several dozen celebrities, and containing a thick web of romance options.

By the time this future comes to pass, copyright laws will preclude any concept of consumer ownership, and the authorities will have collected and destroyed every last DVD, CD, floppy disk, cartridge, or cassette tape produced in more forgiving times. Every game you subscribe to, or buy a microtransaction for, will delete itself as soon as its owning company determines that the game is no longer generating sufficient revenue. There is no legal way to purchase or play your old, expired games. You may only play the latest releases, the games whose owners are still paying game bloggers to write good reviews for. So, within a month of the debut of the original Gopher Golfer, every video game on the planet will be an iteration of Gopher Golfer.

Naturally, game development companies will have also figured out how to automate copyright lawsuits, and millions of Gopher Golfer related DCMA takedown notices will blast through the internet hourly, but these lawsuits will have become a zero-sum game for every professional development company. One penalty paid here is reimbursed by another penalty rewarded over there. Unfortunately, the author of the original Gopher Golfer is not part of a professional gaming company, and when he tries to release an RTS sequel to his own game, the sheer economic force of the lawsuits generated against him causes the global economy to ...

But that's a different sort of apocalyptic story, perhaps for another day.

So cherish your video games while you can. Dust off your old copy of Baldur's Gate, or Freedom Force, or Chrono Trigger. Whisper a silent "thank you" to the men and women who used their talent and imagination to entertain you.

Because your future is made entirely of gophers and golf clubs.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Write every day - no, really

If you've ever made any attempt at seeking advice on becoming a writer, you'll have run across one suggestion that pops up everywhere: "Write every day." It's easy to look at this suggestion and say "Okay, I see the intention here. You're supposed to establish a work ethic, keep your output steady, and treat your writing seriously. Fine, but I can do that by just writing two or three times a week, so long as I keep it up."

There's certainly nothing wrong with writing just X days a week, or Y days a month, so long as you keep to your schedule. That's how I got Stone of Names finished. But recently I've rearranged my schedule so that I actually can write every day.

I've found that the effect of this goes beyond merely word count. Now that I'm writing every day, it's getting into my blood. I find that some small part of my mind is always thinking about the book. I'll be standing around, waiting for the microwave to ding, when a line for my next chapter will pop into my head. Then I have to run and grab my little notebook and write it down. When I do sit down in front of my laptop, I can get back into the flow more easily, because it feels as if I never really left it.

When I was writing just a few days a week, I felt like a software developer who sometimes does a little writing on the side. Now that I'm writing every day, I feel like a writer.