Wednesday, 25 March 2015

On Games Journalism: The Complications.

So, Joe Martin, a short while back, wrote a deservedly scathing piece on Games Journalism and Money , specifically the phenomenon (Which I myself have fallen victim to at least once in the past, for reasons I'm going to go into) of unpaid reviewing, often badly justified. I'd recommend you read that piece first, because it's an actual concern, and it's pretty widespread. Furthermore, I'm going to go into a bit of detail as to why this hurts the industry in general.

So, the problem of pay is one that has struck journalism all over, but has affected Games Journalism on pretty much an endemic basis, pretty much since the internet hit. There are also several factors that complicate things, and it's those I want to go into a little.

There Is No "Ideal" Pay Scale

I thought I understood this game at about five hours. Then I hit the biiiig difficulty spike for completionists at around fifteen. I still play an hour or two every now and again, but it will be a long time before I finish it.

That you should be paid for your writing, and that the review copies are tools for your job, not the pay itself, is indisputable. It is a product you are meant to review, for your job. But there are only two types of payscale out there: Flat rate, and per [X Period]. Neither of them are ideal for games reviewing. Let's start with per hour, to illustrate the point.

Let us say I am paid £6.75 an hour (Pretty close to the minimum wage for my country) for reviewing one of two games. One of them takes four hours to complete (Allowing a complete picture of the game), another can be completed in thirty hours, but a complete picture of how the game works may take up to fifty. Bam, instant lack of incentive to choose the smaller (But possibly better) game. It doesn't help that, unless it's on Steam, your editor can't actually check how many hours you've played unless all work is done in the office. As any freelancer can tell you, this mostly isn't where you're doing things from.

The same applies to a flat rate, but the other way around... I am encouraged to pick the smaller game to review, because it will give me a better return on my writing. It must also be noted that how buggy a game is can further skew this, one way or the other. Sword of the Stars 2, for example, brought my computer to a BSOD four times when I reviewed it, and if that had screwed my computer? Well, then either the editor has to fork out for replacements (Providing the company has such policies, and really, since they're also tools of work, they technically should), or you're out of pocket for not only the review (Which won't be able to be technically finished), but also the replacement parts.

"What about a sliding scale?" Ah, well that disincentivises the editors and owners from larger games. They have to pay you more, for a larger product.

Personally, I'm okay with a good flat rate, and so are most folks I know. But it's not ideal, and I doubt it ever will be. But so long as I feel compensated for the hours of work, I'm good.

Many Editors Won't Take Ex-Unpaid Writers

You may like my writing, you may not. I hope you do, because I enjoy writing, and I enjoy talking about games. But the very fact that I have, in the past, gambled on a startup which has pulled this unpaid (Oh, but we'll pay you if the site starts paying out!) bullshit has, and will bar me from writing for many paid sites.

In my defence, I will say that unemployment makes you do desperate things at times, reaching for any olive branch that will even have a chance of getting you out of the dole queue. But it also needs to be said that punishing the potential writer for taking such a gamble, out of desire for entering a field that, quite frankly, isn't amazingly friendly to newbies (Due to limited paid positions, and a relatively low turnover in writers) is Not Cricket.

Judge a writer by their writing, by their passion, their style, and their eye. Please don't judge a writer for falling for promises, because as it stands, it's not easy to get in to the treehouse.

Why It's Hard To Get Into The Paid End

A selection from ... Most of these adverts can and will use the language in Joe's article. Oh, it's always so fun to scroll through the- [shoots self]

Go google game writing jobs. I'm a member of a LinkedIn group for video game writers. I search every now and again. And 90% of what you find will effectively be these unpaid internships. Even many of the "paid" positions will either have some restrictive conditions, or will have catches. I'm looking at one right now that isn't paid in the work sense, but offers $30 for the "best contributor of the month". Of the month. I'm looking at another, and I don't actually see a mention of pay beyond its existence. I may ask them what, exactly, they're paying... But I don't expect a very useful answer.

I can remember the last time PC Gamer made a call for new freelancers. because I sent a piece in. I can't recall getting a reply back, though. And you can guarantee a lot of writers applied. We've already mentioned low turnover on paid sites, but another problem is knowing which sites pay. Because you can guarantee jobsites like Indeed or LinkedIn aren't too helpful. You can definitely guarantee many places and groups specifically for game journalism are going to be a fucking slog, because all of them, to some extent or another (With an average of "Two hours before potentially finding an actual paid job on a given day) suffer from the problem I've already mentioned.

It's Not A "Real" Job

I'm writing this one from a mainly UK perspective, but it's true nearly everywhere that, to many folks (Including our "lovely" Department of Work and Pensions), writing reviews, much less games journalism, isn't a "real" job. Never mind that breach of contract is a real thing. Never mind that reviewing and games journalism has a code of ethics. Never mind that, if you're doing the job, you should get paid for it. Getting advocacy for rights to the pay that you deserve is an uphill struggle, because the majority of folks who could advocate for you, who could punish potential employers for an unlawful (and unethical) internship contract, aren't going to, because people still think of games as this limited, almost whimsical field.

"Oh, you play games for money? How quaint."

Yeah, tell that to the QA Team who are tearing their hair out (sometimes literally), right this very minute, when they're told "Oh, we'll wait for the Console QA team to report this bug before we take it seriously" (An actual thing I have heard from at least one QA lead, although I will protect the sources). Tell that to the copywriters, panicking because there's no way anyone's going to buy this thing the company rushed, no matter how they dress it up, all over a fucking release date. And tell that to me, who lost at least one computer in the line of reviewing, who has had companies stop talking to him because he wasn't afraid to say that their product was deeply flawed , and who has been told at times that 26 hours is nowhere near enough to have an idea of how to review Skyrim... Despite the fact that the game can be completed in less than 20 if you don't faff about, and a number of other factors that conspire to say "Why yes, actually, you can get enough of a picture in 30 hours to review quite a lot of games."

It All Ties Together

Image Source: An article by The Drum on "The Ad Tech Minefield". Only somewhat fitting, but still...

Of course, this leads to a gigantic interrelated clusterfuck. We're saturated in potential viewpoints, and that's good, variety in viewpoints is useful for reviews! Problem is, for the newcomer to the field (Or even someone like me, who did 3 years of reviewing and games writing), it's not easy to get paid. You're going to get a lot of heartbreak, a lot of applications with no reply, and you're going to be told that it isn't a real job. It's tempting to write somewhere for free, but the very act of doing so, no matter how much it builds your skills from practice (And hopefully mentoring) is going to close doors on you.

It's small wonder so many folks are trying to pay their bills through crowdfunding, and I'm going to be doing the same as soon as the materials are in place. Because we're not a friendly field... In fact, right now, we're a minefield. And it's going to take a lot of work to dig out those mines.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

[System X] Or Nothing.

So, a friend of mine recently tweeted something at me that made me think. It was relatively simple, and it was an expression of frustration:

"I guess it had to be D20 or nothing."

I've definitely been there. I guess, in a sense, I still am there, because I don't currently have a group. Either way, this was about a game called Shadowrun. Shadowrun is awesome: It's a dystopian cyberpunk future where magic is also a thing, and over the years, the writers have fused the two together in some very interesting ways. But some folks really do get stuck in a rut with a system, leading to some very strange statements. In this particular case, the claim was Shadowrun was "too limiting."

Ummm... Okay, let's think about this for a moment.

D20 Style games use a class based system. This doesn't always make sense.

Unsurprisingly, there are no pictures of a Fighter/Wizard/Cleric/Rogue that I could find. This might tell you something...

When you make a character in a D20 game, they are going to be something. A Fighter. A Wizard. The Quick Lady. The Jedi. The Rapscallion. The Gentleman. They're mostly archetypal, a foundation on which to build your character.

But they also mostly allow taking a new class whenever, and this can make some heavy work for the GM. For example, let's take DnD 3.5, and the Fighter example. They start with the ability to use most weapons and heavy armour, something not every class has access to. Then there's the Sorcerer. Their thing is that they have magic from some inborn talent, that then expresses itself. Multiclassing into Sorcerer makes a sort of sense, as it's not something you learn, it's something you suddenly find was part of you all along.

But the Sorcerer isn't the only magic class in DnD. There's also the Wizard, and letting someone suddenly become a Wizard, in most DnD settings, is... Problematic. Why?

Wizards have taken years of training. So have fighters. In the story sense, that's like training for two different lifetime vocations. So it makes less sense in a story sense. It makes less sense in the rules sense, because Wizards start having learned spells (from said years of training), and written them down in a spellbook (Written over the course of said training, and, again in most DnD settings, writing in a spellbook itself is a learned skill with specialist materials).

If you take Wizard as a second class, the GM not only has to agree how that could possibly make sense in the setting and backstory you've already provided, or set the groundwork for you having learned how to be a wizard with little to no warning, they also have the terrible choice of either handing you a spellbook, somehow, somewhere, or not letting you have any of the accoutrements of a wizard until you beg, buy, steal, or find them. Which has just locked you out of the whole reason you got Wizard in the first place.

Not even counting the problems with Fighter/Wizard in DnD in general, this already has the potential to wrongfoot even a stellar GM.

Shadowrun Does This Differently

This Troll probably sucks at using the internet. But who gives a fuck, he has a license for that axe, and can summon ghost bears!

By contrast, Shadowrun lets you have the potential to be a mage from the get-go, while never barring you from combat training. But it also realistically expects that, if you're going to get those mage skills, you're going to have to work for it. And it has perfectly reasonable explanations as to why you can't be an Technomancer-Hermetic-Adept-Street Samurai:

1) Magic expresses itself very specific ways. A Technomancer is not just a different set of training, but, in a sense, a different mutation. Magic has touched the Technomancer in a way that it didn't touch a Hermetic Mage, or a Shaman, or the Physical Adept.
2) Skill points represent the kind of training you've had... College/University courses, spending time in a military programme, spending time on the darker side of the Interwubs, progressing from fawning script-kiddy to a Name To Tell Stories About. Anyone who's ever gone into any of these things will know that, at best, you can probably do only a few of these things, and if you want to get good, you're going to have to specialise.

So, in a sense, it is limited. But it's the kind of limited that leads to characters, not a collection of numbers that is nigh unbeatable unless the GM decides to play equally unfairly.

I'm not dissing D20, by the way, it does cinematic, combat based gameplay very well. But it leads into two points I wanted to make:

Game Systems are Designed for Specific Purposes

If you can't guess what this game is all about... I really can't help you. But it illustrates the point perfectly!

Now, we're not gonna really get into the paradigm of Gamist-Simulationist-Narrativist here (mainly because those are generalised categories of game design), but we're going to talk about what game systems emphasise.

D20 emphasises combat. It doesn't do "social combat" very well, and it's basically mainly good for a very specific type of game: One where you do a lot of fighting. Beyond that, the rules don't really back it up as well as you'd like. It's a power fantasy, it's about Being Epic, and it has no time for your discussions on the nature of the society you live in. There is a dragon to be slain, and no-name NPCs to save! Different editions had different focuses, but basically, it does Archetypes in High Fantasy Situations quite well, and everything else only so so.

Shadowrun, by contrast, emphasises the deadliness of combat. It also emphasises speed, forward planning, and networking. It's better than D20 for the "social combat" end of things, but the main thrust of it is that you are a team of professionals who could get fucked at any time by any other team of professionals. In a way, it's more democratic, because that no-name NPC could just as easily kill you with 25 Lbs of hi-grade plastique as you could using the same method. It's just, very often, no-name NPC doesn't have hi-grade plastique, and you do.  Probably not the best way to explain it, but there's a whole slew of subtle (and not so subtle) differences that make for a different experience.

The *World games, like Monsterhearts, emphasise the social end of things. The combat is barebones, but is itself a means to an end. In Monsterhearts, yes, you can fight to kill the bad evil guy or hapless mook... But it's more likely you're using combat as a means to get a social hold on someone, give them a reason to do that thing you want them to do. Because in Monsterhearts, you're teenagers. You're not heroes or mercenaries, like Shadowrun and D20. You're teens, the world doesn't make sense (or makes too much sense in all the wrong ways), and the game emphasises the emotional rollercoaster that being a teen entails. That it's laser focused on this has made it quite popular.

How nearly every Paranoia character ends up. Just so you know ahead of time. Also, please report to termination for receiving knowledge above your security clearance, Citzen, thanks in advance!

Paranoia, as our final example of this point, is about living in a world gone blackly, hilariously mad, about being a cog in a machine that's definitely not working as intended, and about fucking up. You are a member of a secret society. Secret Societies are illegal (punishable by death). You are a mutant. Mutants, unless registered (and thus spat upon) are illegal (punishable by death). You are a Troubleshooter, a throwaway resource of a society that is meant to fix these irreconcilable problems in the society, caused by the society that's ordering you to do it, and the only way you're going to get anything done is by breaking the rules. Which you aren't even meant to know in the first place (Showing knowledge of this thing called Paranoia Rulebook is punishable by death, Citizen). Everything about the rules emphasises this, including the fact that your fellow Troubleshooters are all traitors, you are a traitor, and your goals, both public and secret, contradict themselves in a way that's going to get you killed... But it's relatively consequence free, because all but the SRS BSNS versions of the rules allow you to die multiple times with no consequences.

Every game does something different, and it's important to know this. It's also important to know that every setting does something different, and you can mix and match for a tighter focus on what you want. D20 Shadowrun is about Bigger, Better Guns. *World Shadowrun is all about what kind of person Running the Shadows makes you. And Paranoia Shadowrun is probably a very scary thing... Please let me know in the comments if anyone has been crazy enough to try that, and how it went.

A Game/Group Lives or Dies By Communication and Co-Operation (Even in Paranoia)

Probably not the best example.

There is a phrase, bandied about on a thread about gaming stories, and it's one I want you to keep in mind:

Better no game at all than a bad game.

Roleplaying is a co-operative thing, and it's important for the fun of all that you're on the same page. My friend didn't want to play a power fantasy Monty Hall game where you go into dungeons, kill monsters, and eventually become a living demi-god that breaks the fabric of reality and common sense nine times before breakfast. This, from the conversation I had, was exactly what this GM seemed to always want. And being clear about this, instead of faffing about, would have made it clear, earlier on, that this isn't the GM for that.

D20 isn't fun if you aren't down for a certain kind of game. Paranoia seems needlessly hurtful and competitive if you aren't down for what's meant to be a light-hearted, backstabby game (The kind where you playfully cry "You git! I pull out my gun and waste 'em!" ... And then get blown up by your friend, Mister Computer, for not being a Good Citizen (TM) ...) Monsterhearts seems "too real" unless you set boundaries on what subjects are going to come up in your Twilight inspired high-school, and Shadowrun can be decidedly unfair if you aren't all agreeing that the story is a higher priority than Bigger and Better Guns.

Talk to your friends, if you want to roleplay. Explore the possibilities. Think about what kind of fun or exploration you want to have together. And while you may end up saying "Yeah, perhaps it's best if we don't"... More often, you'll find yourself exploring other viewpoints, other worlds... And having a whale of a time doing it.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The Plan

So, today, awesome things happened. A couple of friends did some cool things, and, in the process, inspired me to get back to the frontline. Back to seriously pushing video game writing, and maybe paying my god-damn bills with it.

It's a good feeling, and lemme tell you, right now, I'm full of piss and vinegar. But for all that inspirations struck, and, to a certain extent, motivation has returned, I need to make sure I've got a Plan.

Plans are important. They're important for moustache twirlers like me, because without them, we're just cackling half-heartedly with fuck all to do on a Saturday night. They're important when taking a big leap like this, where you're not actually sure anyone's going to read what you write. They're good for a number of situations, and I think we'll leave it at that.

So right now, my Plan is pretty simple. I know there are at least some people who like the things I have to say. I have a good mic, and can record and edit vids (Even if it's a pain in the ass right now... Thanks, Adobe, you really had my back there... [mutters vile profanities]). I have a domain.

But I need to get in touch with folks, I need to get material, I need, most importantly of all, to get the site up and running.

So here's The Plan:

1) Eat my somewhat late tea, and a cup of tea to go with it.

2) Sleep, because as much as piss and vinegar are good for ranting or short pieces, it's important to me to consider what I'm writing. Plus, I want to see if I still have the same determination in the morning, when my tongue feels like all the cats in the world shed on it, and the view from my window is giving me an equally determined Fuck You.

3) Finish the Wonderland pieces I'm writing for The Adventure Gamer. Depression, software problems, and other Fun Stuff have kinda delayed that. Gotta get used to deadlining myself again.

4) Pull up the specs for the site, and CLEAN UP THE LOGO. Yes, I've had a logo for some time. The current version isn't what I'm happy with, though, and get a quote from some buds who know their stuff when it comes to site design and setup. It's important to know when you don't have the tools, and someone else does.


It's a little sketchy, as it requires convincing at least a few developers that yes, I can write and be seen, and yes, I'm going to cover their product as fairly as I can... While still pointing out that if I think it sucks, that's the be all and end all of my piece, and I'm only kind of sorry about that. If it helps, I don't play favourites. But I've done that before, back when I started, and fucked if I can't do it again.

Oh... Step 1.5: That's the one for right now, while I sip my tea and munch on what can definitely be described as "Food", but nowhere near "The balanced meal you want for a long life". Thank the people who gave me my fire back, even if the morning makes me reconsider. Even if tomorrow, I go right back to umming, and ahhing, and in Upended Turtle mode. Thanks for being you. Carry on being you, you know who you are.

Right, time to finish this, peace out. Let's see what tomorrow brings.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Paralyzed By The Butterfly of Consequence: Life is Strange, Episode 1

So, today, as an early birthday present, I got Life is Strange episode 1. It's an adventure game in the tradition of Telltale's Walking Dead, with multiple choices, consequences, and all that jazz, and it's published by Square Enix... But it has a twist: You can, in a limited fashion, change your choices. Let's take an inconsequential example, and one that may or may not have consequences down the line (More on why I don't know yet in a bit.)

One of the first examples is part of a tutorial: You're Max, a shy college student who loves photos, but you need to get out of your class quick for... Reasons. Neither of your starting choices are any good, because they both involve detention (I can almost hear Max berating herself for her choices in the VA too, the acting is a definite plus in this game!)

...But you have a third choice. You see, Max... Can rewind time. No, she hasn't always been able to do it. No, she doesn't understand her powers... But, as of certain events, she can do it. So you have a third option: Rewind time, and say what the teacher wants to hear.


Now, as someone who's said exactly the wrong thing in class, I can certainly understand that seeming awesome. But there's something that has stopped me from playing the rest... Well, so far, anyhow, because I want to get back to this one, for multiple reasons.

You see, just like the Telltale games, Actions have Consequences. And not all of them are good. By definition, the choice I'm going to present isn't a spoiler, because I haven't seen the consequences. And I'm actually kind of scared to, because, as more spoilery reviews have shown, the stakes are actually quite high, and implied to be pretty high from the word go.

Okay, that's a face you could grow to hate, but... :S

So even a seemingly inconsequential choice (To comfort a preppy "mean girl" for her ruined cashmere jacket) Has Consequences. And I'm scared of them. I like Max. I empathise with Victoria, because so far... Well, she may be a bitch, but hell, I was a cock in college too, and I knew a few folks I thought were jerks who've... well, actually turned out alright, without making anyone's life go to hell in the process either.

I helped a girl dodge a rugby (Well, American Football) ball. I opened a cupboard. And however inconsequential that sounds... There's a little Butterfly in the corner, telling me "Your Action Will Have Consequences."

If the intro's anything to go by, Bad Shit Will Go Down, People Will Die... And I'm not sure I'm up to riding the emotional rollercoaster of finding out what my seemingly harmless pranks and explorations have really done.

Well, not today, anyway. The game is really well written, the VA is quite good (IE - People sound normal), and it looks pretty darn nice too. So I know I'll go back to it. But that little Butterfly scares me. And I think it should.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Shotgun Yak: Music Taste, Dating Site Profiles, and VACUUM CLEANERS, AWWH YEAH.

Even though I blog about games a lot, it's important to talk about other things, including (LE GASP) my actual life. So I'm going to start with what, at first, seems the most underwhelming shit in the world.

I have a new vacuum cleaner. And it is fucking awesome. You may disagree on this point, but hear me out, if only because I'm also gonna be talkin' about online dating later, a thing I know a few friends have experience with.

So, why is this so awesome? I mean, it's a fucking household tool, right?

My Vacuum cleaner, a 3d mockup courtesy of Keyshot. It is awesome, I will brook no arguments.

Right. But it's one this house has been lacking for a while, and it showed. It didn't help that my last vacuum cleaner was weak as fuck... And this is awesome because of another factor: A clean house, a clean mind. Now, I wasn't sure of this statement myself, because I kind of like shit strewn about. I know where it is, y'see, and an empty floor actually makes me freak out a little.

But mess... Mess is a different matter. I'm not talking about "Dude, you have, like, fifty art books strewn around the floor!" (That's relatively fine, so long as I don't damage the books by leaving them open and strewn about, don't deliberately step on them, that kind of thing), I'm talking about the little shit that adds up. Sometimes, little bits of tobacco fall out of your rollup, ash, dust, crumbs... Little things that nonetheless add up to a grody experience. The kind that makes you feel bad for seeing it, and isn't good for your physical health either. You can dust with a brush, broom, and dustpan all you damn want, some of that crap isn't going to go away.

But a vacuum cleaner, that's a huge load off my mind when it comes to keeping my space clean and relatively healthy. And seeing as I see a lot of my room in Winter, and that it's my little retreat from the world when the sadbrain hits, that's actually really fucking important.

Okay, this is a bit of an extreme clipshot for such a point, but I hope you get where I'm coming from here. This is bad.

So that is why a new vacuum cleaner is awesome.

Moving on, let's talk a little bit about online dating. I have two online dating profiles, both on "free" sites: PlentyOfFish and OKCupid. And I'm relatively okay with both my profiles. But online dating has a lot of frustrations, and one of them is summed up quite simply...

...I can't be "Looking for a Relationship" and "Looking for Friends" at the same time, or rather, I can, but people will have issues trusting one or the other motive. And this is Not Technically My Fault. In fact, I'm fairly certain I can drop the technically there, because dating sites like to simplify shit. And people buy into that.

Not that my messages are top notch or anything, any issues with folks just not wanting to talk to the guy who suddenly pops up and can ask a buttload of questions are my fault and my fault alone... But there's other factors out there, and one of them is tied into that whole Culture of Fear thing I talked about a long while back.

This is useful. But not always your friend.

See, some folks genuinely aren't interested in more than a random date, maybe a short fling. This is a good thing, because that's their comfort zone, and so long as they're responsible about it, it's all good. But when someone who has "Looking for a Relationship" on their profile messages them, that sends lil' warning bells that maaaaybe that person wasn't meaning to ring. So they're less likely to respond to that kind of messager, out of the (Sadly, often genuine) fear that the person will become clingy, creepy, or stalky. That's just one example of how a system with hard categories, however useful hard categories can be, isn't helping anyone.

"But Jay," you cry "You can, on some places, set it for Friends, Hookups, and Relationships, all at once, it doesn't have to be black and white!"

Yes. Yes you can. And sadly, this often leads to the perception that, instead of being someone who's laid back and fairly open minded, they're sad, desperate folks clinging to whatever they can get. Because here's another problem with dating profiles, and writing them.

Sell Yourself... But Don't Make It All About You. In practice, this is a hella delicate balance, but those two rules are often just thrown out there, with little practical advice on how to balance them. Me, I talk about me, and I would like it if you talk about you, profile wise. When talking over the direct messaging, it's more mutual, but when it comes to profiles themselves? Hell fucking yes, make it about you. Because if someone's not interested in you, and you're not interested in them, well, that's a helluva fucking great start, isn't it?

Dating sites try to sell you a lot of concepts, and not all of them are actually useful. Let's take a digression into interests. Dating Sites looooove generic categories for interests, and people loooove the "Just Ask" as a replacement for talking about themselves, partly because People Are Lazy, partly out of fear of attracting the Creeper, and partly because dating sites encourage pigeonholes.

A sadly very apt image, on multiple levels!

So often, I see something along these lines:

"Hey there, you wanna know more, just ask!"

- Socialising
- Family and Friends
- Shopping

...Wow. You could be the most bubbly, lovable person on the planet, and I will never know, because online dating, no matter how much you pretend otherwise, is a time investment (Moreso for women than men, because men, on the whole, do seem to message women a lot more than the other way around. At least partly because a lot of women's time is spent going through the hundred and fifty or so variations of "HEY BABY, WHAZZAP" that they seem to get every god-damn day, which cuts into their time) ... And this has told me nothing. What do you shop for? What do you like about socialising? Why do you list keeping up with the family and friends as a hobby? What the hell can I ask?

I could be the most bubbly, lovable person you've met (Probably not, I'm a regular Doctor Doom at times, and not ashamed to admit it), and you, too, will never know. All because of a bunch of shitty factors. Let's sum up some of them.

- The aforementioned Lazy Profile. Often encountered in the wild with the Duckface Selfie, or the male variation, the Man Poses With Tiger (This has become almost a fucking meme)

- People are told to sell themselves, and guess what? This has often had connotations of Make Yourself Appear Better Than You Are, because retail marketing does that, so why shouldn't you? (Protip: It's better in the long run if you actually improve the product... In this case, you. This also works in the long term for retail, but hey...)

- It is a long term thing. But everybody wants a fix now, now, now.

- Text communication needs work too.

- Creepy Dudes. I'm not gonna lie, there's Creepy Ladies out there too, but Creepy Dudes appears to be the bigger problem here. This all ties into the final point, which I'm going to separate and emphasise..

Relationships Need Work. Do The Fucking Work.

Thanks to Orange for this pic that sorta shows how this should go down.

I'm guilty of this one just as much as the rest of you. There are folks I've forgotten to message, and then not messaged later out of guilt. There's one lady I'm talking to right now (I do like guys, but am not exactly fond of my own gender these days, as a whole. Specific dudes I know are awesome though, just to clarify!), who's working on their uni assignments, so I know they won't be able to message back right away. And there's folks who seem awesome, but I'm not willing to send a second message a lot of the time out of fear of being a Creepy Dude.

But yeah... Again, using a dating site is about peace of mind, and, like cleaning the room, it takes work. Which yes, sucks, I know... But, in the words of Jennifer Connolly in Labyrinth

"Yes... It isn't fair... But that's the way it is." (Note: This doesn't apply to certain concepts, like misogyny, classism, and general bigoted assholery. That isn't just the way it is, it's a shitty thing that folks can deal with, and should deal with.)

A little understanding, a little more communication, and a little more effort in that communication, and you'll be happier overall for it.

Finally, I'm gonna segue into Music, and wrap up what you may have noticed has a theme here. Linking it back to the dating sites, you may get frustrated when you just see "MUSIC" under interests. But I'm more tolerant of that, because taste in music is not a thing that can really be pigeonholed. It's not terribly helpful, but that's because we should really concentrate more on why we like the music, not what music we like.

Music wise, there's only two things I really don't like: Gangster Rap, because fools take themselves too damn serious, and Happy Hardcore, because I refuse to believe that shit is music. That's the prejudice part of things over with, out the way, done.

But we like music for a variety of different reasons, and often, we like music that's ideologically contested.

Wait, Ideologically Contested? What The Fuck Is This?

Okay, let's take a few examples, all from the period I grew up in (Which has a lot of it). Let's start with New Order's Blue Monday. Blue Monday is an awesome track, with a great backbeat, some good synth, and vocals that make me wonder what guitar pedals they hooked to the mike, because I wanna sing like that. But the song itself? It's about a dysfunctional as fuck relationship. Just the chorus should clue you into this:

But tell me now, how do I feel?
Tell me now how should I feel?

Two fucking lines, and it establishes a cornucopia of "This person is fucked". They're numb, confused, and dependent on the other person to tell them how they feel. It doesn't get much better:

Those who came before you,
Lived through their vocation.
From the past unto completion,
They'll turn away no more.

Okay, "Those who came before you"... The people they've dated before... "Lived through their vocation"?!? Vocation, a job, a duty. Serious self image issues. Everything about this song (Go look up the lyrics) screams dysfunction, but I love the expression.

Turning Japanese. Teardrop. Tainted Love. Didn't Mean To Turn You On. You Spin Me Right Round, Baby (Right Round). All about things turned sour. And at least two of those are really fucking catchy.

But, at the same time, I love Doki Doki, by Smile.DK. Science Genius Girl, by Freezepop. I love Thrift Shop, by Macklemore... Because they're all expressive as hell. Mary Black. Apollyon Sun. AC/DC and Led Zeppelin. I love music in general because it expresses these things. And sometimes I love things I shouldn't.

Good example, I think Skullcrusher Mountain, by Jonathan Coulton, is, in its twisted sense, romantic. But it's not a healthy romance. Oh, goodness me, no. He specifically wrote it as a Bond Villain Lovesong, and that's not healthy at all. In fact, I wouldn't blame you for disliking me for liking that song. That's Not My Name, by the Ting Tings, is the anthem of clubbing boys and girls who go out, get pissed, and don't understand why nobody will take them home, for fuck's sake. It's not a nice song. The male backing even goes into this, while the lead continues to tell you how pissed they are:

This song was in my head, now it's in my mind,
Call it, reach it, get some words, and get some timing,
Now I realise, I cannot emphasise,
I'll stick around, but just a promise, nothing binding,
However can't you see, that you're so desperately,
A standing joker like a vocal one liner.
This song is sing-a-long, but it's so monotone,
Gotta get some soul, gotta get some feeling

Emphasis mine. The first half is kinda shitty on the dudebro end of things. I'll stick around, but even though it's a promise, I don't feel the obligation to keep it? Way to fucking go, brah, and I mean that in the most sarcastic sense possible. But the other half...

...It's like that one Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic. Here, lemme link you the comic in question. In this case, it's not the guy doing this... It's the lady. And a lack of communication really fucking hurts.

So, let's wrap this up. You may have noticed a common theme here. Two, actually: Communication, and Safe Space. This whole blog post was a very thinly veiled set of analogies, while also dealing with examples of how they're actually fucking important, yo. Dating sites aren't necessarily a safe space (in fact, for some folks, they definitely aren't!), but part of the problem with them is the whole Humans Are Lazy At Words thing I talked about (Yeah, I just provided you at least two more examples for that.) Music is expressive, but sometimes it expresses things that really aren't safe (I like some of these tunes, not just because they're good tunes, but because I have darker aspects, just like everyone else, and being aware of them helps me just be a Moustache Twirler, as opposed to That Fucking Creepy Villain Nobody Likes Because He's Super Repellent). And a vacuum cleaner, a simple fucking household tool that's really common in the First World, is important to me for helping to create a safe space in my own home, in terms of both mental and physical health.

Now excuse me, I have to do a second pass on the kitchen, and watch those hairs on the carpet get SUCKED INTO OBLIVION, SUCK IT, CARPET DEBRIS!


Friday, 13 February 2015

Why SHOULD I Read The Fucking Manual?

Manuals for games are a big can of worms, because there is this feeling in game design these days that it's just plain better to design things so you don't need a manual. Games are, after all, meant to be for everyone, including those of us who don't fink so gud. That's inclusive, and inclusivity is a nice thing... But I'm not entirely sure I agree, for several reasons. Still, let's start this discussion off with "What the heck do game manuals look like, and why did we need them way back when?"

This here is the original game box for Wasteland, an RPG you may have heard of considering it recently got a sequel, currently in Early Access, and both its director (Brian Fargo) and its spiritual successor (Fallout) are pretty well known. Now, look a lil' closer, and you will see... Holy shit, that's a big ol' honkin' book, isn't it? And there's more than one of 'em! Gaaaaahd, how could you be expected to read that shit?

Well, firstly, you were expected to read dat shit because RPGs are often quite complex, and limitations of the systems they were on meant that you couldn't fit everything into the game. In Wasteland's case, there are two books: The actual manual, which describes the stats, how they interact, some skills (manuals of the time sometimes had misleading information for reasons of plot or designer dickishness. Not quite cricket, I know), and how to control what, at the time, was a fairly complex game (and, to be fair, still is). The manual served a second purpose, which is part of why manuals largely fell out of vogue: It allowed the designers to take shortcuts. Why work harder to make your UI more intuitive, when you can have a manual to describe it?

(Sometimes, though, folks are just bad at UI design...)

The other book, however, was the real doozy. It was a combination of copy protection, and a way to get around size limitations. See those floppy squares? Those are 5.25" Floppy Disks, and they had a maximum filesize of... 360 Kilobytes. Go look at your "My Computer" screen, or equivalent, and let's go downward. I have a 500 Gigabyte and a 3 Terabyte Hard Drive. My DVD-RWs for Let's Play backups have a 4.75 GB limit. Tera... Giga... Mega... Wow. Them's some tiny files, right?

The Wasteland Paragraph Book contains any long talky bits for the game, along with fake talky bits so anyone who wanted to try and skip ahead in the story could very easily fuck up, and it had something like 500 paragraphs. Let's assume the paragraphs had an average of 50 words, with an average of 5 characters. That's 125,000 characters. Each one of those characters takes, effectively, 1 Byte, so encoded in the game files, that would be 125 KB, or slightly less than half the allowed filesize on a disk of the time. In practice, it would end up a fair bit smaller (Probably around 40-60 KB), but like I said, it doubled as an anti-piracy measure.

It also ended up getting around another limitation. Here's a Wasteland screenshot.

Hrm. That's something like 20 words. They could have displayed the paragraphs, but it would make the game a lot more tedious to play. Since it's not really real-time, it takes very little effort to flick through the book, and everyone's happy.

But anti-piracy measures moved on from something as easily circumvented as "Read The Fucking Book/Take numbers off a card", and I'm actually sort of glad about that, because while they sometimes got inventive in a good way, they also started doing such boneheaded things as black text on carbon paper (which is red), and really small fonts, in order to discourage copying. If anything, this had the opposite effect, and I remember Dad and I tearing our hair out at trying to decipher the codes on the TMNT anti-piracy sheet, and eventually writing what codes we could on a TXT file and printing it off. Since not many folks I knew even had a PC at the time, this wasn't a ticket to easy pocket money either, more's the pity... Because the TMNT game in question was shit.

Another hotly contested thing manuals did was set up the lore for the world, or provide a miniature encyclopedia. "But Jamie!" I hear you cry "You can have an in-game encyclopedia now!"

This is a bad in-game encyclopedia. Partly because it's badly written, but mostly because it's a FUCKING RACING GAME.

Yes. Yes you can. But it has exactly the same potential flaws as a lore-book, and it has one flaw that printed versions don't have: You can't read it outside of the game. Why would you want to read it outside of the game? Well, if your in-game encyclopedia is actually good, it would be because you wanted to learn more about this strange world you'd found your character in, to know things the designers didn't put in.

And here's where it gets complicated. Because modern game design quite rightly states that the hierarchy of tutorial methods (and, to a lesser extent, world building) is Do > Show > Tell. Whenever you can, it is better to either outright show an aspect of a culture in a game, or at least imply it. However, to show that it's not all that simple (Give respect to game designers, yo, they have a hard job), we have to consider flow.

Whoops. Somebody fucked up their flow!

Flow is not, as some believe, a nebulous, arty farty game design concept, but something any good game designer has to worry about. Ever had that "Ugggh, this cutscene came in the middle of a fucking boss fight, and he attacks right after!" or "God-fucking dammit, now I have to look at my journal while I'm being attacked!" ? That's bad flow. It's not always on the game itself, as well: I've complained, in the past, of "Ugh, fighting breaks the flow of this game too hard" in Mirror's Edge, and in fact, that was a common complaint when it came out. But on examination? A lot of that was me, not the game. There are rarely places where you have to fight, and those places, it's pretty clear that, well, that's the only way out. The rest of the time, you have lots of options for just plain avoiding the cops that try and bar your way, and the game's simple visual language means you have very little excuse for not using the environment well.

In a turn based game, you don't have to worry about flow so much, so you can leave lavish descriptions and lovingly crafted stat pages right there in the game (although most double down and have a PDF you can alt-tab to or print sections of.) But in a more action oriented game, you just don't want to know right now, thanks! So doing this well helps a lot. I'm Let's Playing the series now, and have a soft spot for it, so let's talk briefly about lore done right in the Wipeout series.

It helped that the game was fairly pretty for the time, too.

Wipeout's manual was pretty simple. It had to be, because PS1 manuals were generally quite small. But they wanted us to care about the world and teams. So they had team profiles they felt they couldn't fit in the game. Okay, we get a favourite team (Qirex for the win, as an aside!) But they also had little press releases that told us about the world... And it wasn't as nice a place as you'd think, considering Anti-Gravity had pretty much decimated Big Oil, and helped the environment a little bit. They had track blurb, that also added to this, and later games in the series also had tidbits of lore tucked into press releases on the official site, a timeline we could build up of the world... It was a technical racing game, but we had added reason to want to play it because the world was interesting!

That, and PS1 parties at raves, were both pretty useful marketing tactics, and the series sold pretty well, for the most part. So manuals can serve a useful purpose that isn't just "haha, you need this manual, noob!"

But the biggest concern, the one that really nails the lid shut, is that it's a) not cost effective to print manuals much anymore, especially when you have the PDF, cutting printing costs entirely, and b) It's more environmentally friendly. But there's a good reason Official Guidebooks, especially ones that hint at the larger world, or give info that just couldn't be put into the game, still exist, and sell like hotcakes.

So how do we resolve this? Well, different companies resolve it in different ways. Portal and Dark Souls both do the "Implied world" and "Teaching through play", and that mostly works. I say mostly, because sometimes, not even excellent design can help some folks. Yes, you've tried to put a portal on not-white surfaces for the last half hour, dude, maybe it's time to try something different?

There is nowhere here to put a portal. Stop fucking trying.

Thief (the original one, not the bastard child of 2014) had optional lore, a tutorial mission, and again, implying details about its grim world, often through the hilarity of some seriously obnoxious guards (In a good way... You'd have to have played to understand why "Y'wanna go to the bear-pits tomorrow?" can send me into peals of laughter)

Paradox strategy games, and many others, do indeed have big honkin' manuals, and lengthy tutorials, and ohgodihavetoomanyindustrialistswhygodwhy... Maybe Paradox, as much as I love them, aren't the best example... And many RPGs have... the same WALLS OF TEXT AND LORE, but in dialogues with other characters. That's... a double edged sword, because when the writing and the voice acting is good, just like a manual, it's engaging, but when it isn't, you get "And LO, Did The Archimandrite Of Thessalinicamanica Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Why Haven't You Hit Skip Already [important info] Blah Blah Blah."

So, when you're designing a game, spare a thought for the manual. It's good design not to rely on it, but it, and your in-game encyclopedia and whatnot, are important tools, even in something as simple as, say... A twin-stick shooter series. It can give players a reason to care about your game, it can clue players in to advanced strategies. You have to account for the fact that folks might not read it, but if you're going to do it, do it well. In game or out, it may well help deflect that old saw of "UGH, THIS GAME SUCKS BECAUSE [Long rant translated to: I didn't pay any attention whatsoever to the game] !"

It's still a valid option, even today.

Games Journalism: We Are *All* Only Human.

For anyone keeping up with gaming news, Peter Molyneux recently got it in the pants over Godus. Bigtime. While some things needed to be said to the British GameDev Wunderkind, others didn't, and it made me think of something we tend to forget: Everyone in the Games Biz, from the devs to the journos, to the players, are only human. And we tend to forget this. All of us.

The Devs

Warren Spector, from Martian Dreams.

Richard Garriott. Warren Spector. Graeme Devine. John Romero. These, and many more, are names to conjure with in the games industry. But we, both players and games press, tend to overlook the oddities and failings of these folk. Go look at Martian Dreams and Savage Worlds. You'll find a literal self insert of Warren Spector in both. In fact, Wikipedia has a selection of his self-inserts on the page about him.

They're good folks, but they're not rockstars. They have their failings. Tabula Rasa was a flop. Thief: Deadly Shadows definitely had flaws. Even the series I'm currently Let's Playing, Wipeout, Made Mistakes.

But we have a tendency to ignore this, and when we do discover folks have their human qualities, not necessarily good ones? We tend not to react too well. An extreme case in point: Phil Fish. Phil Fish is another dev who's been raked over the coals, for the crime of... Being abrasive and temperamental. And because he is a public figure, a celebrity... The reaction is disproportionate.

But let's look at the other two sides here.

The Journos

As someone who used to review, I'm just as guilty as every other game journo out there for being attracted by something that just... Doesn't... Work. In my particular case, a prime example would be Nuclear Dawn.

If you can instinctively make sense of this, congratulations, you could be a Nuclear Dawn Commander!

What, you haven't heard of it? But it rewards good team-based play, actually talking to other players, and... Oh, yeah, it didn't do very well because it wasn't accessible to the average player. See, the average player, for various reasons, just wants to god-damn play. They want to shoot mans, not stand in a corridor waiting for an enemy push they're not sure will come. They definitely don't want some asshole telling them what to do (Especially if said asshole turns out to be incompetent), and they don't want to spend time guarding said asshole from the enemy, even if that's a vital element of the game.

So what ended up happening was that whoever co-ordinated and/or had a decent team leader would steamroll the pubbies. Again. And Again. And Again. And lo, it Wasn't Fun. So the servers were nigh ghost towns, and the game didn't do nearly as well as its interesting gameplay could have gotten.

On the other end of things, for me, was Blur, by Bizarre Creations. Blur had problems. The track design meant that a reasonably skilled player could DNF (Did Not Finish) all the other racers on many tracks, people were having connection issues out the wazoo, and a third to half the vehicles were basically reskins. But the first part and the third in our equation, Players and Devs, came into play here...

Blur: The Big Boys Mario Kart. Oh ho. Ho ho ho ho ho.

...You see, Bizarre Creations also made Project Gotham Racing, which was, in many folks' minds, a Good Series. So when a review score was lower than expected, they came out to complain. I didn't get a whole lot of complaints (A whole ten, I think... I'm not a celebrity writer, never was), but, on the strength of those, my editor at the time claimed that I had been "experiencing day-one issues".

Three months later, I issued a re-review (Something many game journos will tell you is a bad idea), and nobody appeared to care one way or another. Bizarre, you see, had started copy-pasting responses to bug reports, claiming it was being fixed, while already talking about a sequel, and working on another game (Bloodstone, which also Had Problems).

They folded a few months after my re-review. Now, here comes the weird part. The players came out again, but they didn't yell at me (Who scored the game pretty low). No, I opened up the letters page of PC Gamer, to find someone blaming them for the demise of Blur. This was pretty irrational, as PC Gamer had been a lot nicer than I had, and didn't even mention many of the issues seen with the game.

It was a head-shaking experience. But it leads us nicely to the third part of our little equation.

The Players

The Bush-Wookie in his natural habitat.

In a very real sense, the players are a more diverse group than either the developers or gaming press. But what you see isn't that diverse at all, because what most folks see of a playerbase are comments, forum posts, and meeting them in actual play... And the bad tends to stick out like a sore thumb.

The Mass Effect 3 Ending. Starbound's "Caveman Tier" play. Fucking Bush-Wookies. The list of things players complain about, not always making sense, is immense. Let's take the Bush-Wookies as an example.

Bush-Wookie is a nickname for Snipers in the Battlefield series, especially Bad Company 2, because their camouflage... Well, it makes them look like Wookies from Star Wars. Also because it helps them hide in bushes. Duh.

The problem is, a good sniper, in pretty much any multiplayer game, can lock down entire areas of the map. And it's a massive pain in the arse to dig them out. Never is this more prevalent than in the Heavy Metal map of Bad Company 2.


The map doesn't show it very well, but the middle capture point here is flanked by two hills, and there's an AA gun in the village, just off to one side of the point itself. Snipers/engineers in those hills can fire as far away as either of the other capture points, and getting them out often requires air support, which... Oh. Oh. Again, we find that the fun of the game is instantly ruined for the average player if they're up against a co-ordinated team. And, in the case of BC2, it doesn't even have to be voice co-ordinated, because the classes make it fairly obvious where you should go. The snipers will graduate to the hills, because there's a lot of cover and disguise up there. The engineers will graduate to the hills, because it's relatively safe from the AA guns, and allows them to kill the vehicles they're meant to. Meanwhile, the medics will assist the assaults, who will die in droves as they either try to take the next point along (Which will have everything coming their way), or try to take B (Which will be protected by a force that can efficiently deny you entry if they're even halfway competent)

In this map, among others, snipers are a massive force multiplier. It doesn't help that playing a sniper as realistically as possible (Moving after shots, not revealing themselves as best they can, staying outside the range of the other classes) means that the sniper has a reputation as a player out to ruin other people's fun.

It's not an entirely unfair point either, because some of them genuinely are. Which is annoying, because there's no easy solution. Battlefield 3 went with making snipers easier to spot and more likely to get into short range firefights (Which they'll often lose), but this makes playing a sniper less fun.

Wait, that's not the right image... DAMN YOU, GOOGLE SEARCH, YOU SHOULD HAVE TOLD ME WHAT TO LOOK FOR!!!

Part of this problem though, is that players go in with expectations, and when those expectations aren't met, they're unhappy, whether because it wasn't properly explained what sort of game it is, or because the mechanic was genuinely badly designed... Often, it's because they just don't get it. Good example of that: The Portal Gun. The Portal Gun doesn't make portals on anything but white walls (Covered in moon-dust, apparently), and both games try to show you this. But, because they don't explicitly tell you, and remind you, you get folks who completely fail to understand how it works.

Those people aren't necessarily stupid. The game isn't necessarily bad. But the players' expectations coming into the game may be unrealistic, or the game isn't communicating to the level of the average player.

Even this commentary on expectations is going to be subject to problems. I've seen these points examined before, and you know what I hear when they're discussed?

Entitled. No Moron Left Behind Policy. I Shouldn't Need A Tutorial, Or To Read The Manual.

Yeah, okay, players can be entitled (Oh, dear lord, they can be entitled!) It only takes a quick look at comments on negative reviews to see that ("How DARE you give X a 6/10! It's CLEARLY PERFECT!"). But many of these are knee-jerk reactions, whether on the part of devs, or players, or journos, and there's no easy fix for any of it.

No, really. We could say "Devs, please try to be more human", but that won't work without players shifting their worldview, and journos not instantly squeeing the moment Big Name is mentioned, and a lot of other things, too. We could say "Journos, please think more critically", but that would require devs and players alike agreeing what that means... And we've all seen how well that's been going so far... We could say "Players, please try to read tutorials more/shift expectations", but that's massive generalisations about a very diverse group, and it can't help but offend at least some of them.

We could say a lot of things, but a lot of it has to do with one basic principle, which I fully understand is hard for people (myself included). Be More Aware. For example, be aware that once a game has a flaw baked into it, it's often going to be very hard, even if you genuinely are a rockstar super-developer, to change it and/or get it out. Be aware that sometimes, you're not going to like the writing in a game, but that's no reason to scream bloody murder (Sometimes quite literally). Be aware that not all games are for you, specifically, unless you truly want to learn how to play them. There's a lot of "Be Aware", and while all those examples were for players, there's a lot of others for the journos and the devs too.

Funnily enough, this blog post isn't about fixing the problem. It's about Being Aware That It's There.