After The Rocky Starts

(sorry about the lack of images today, something wonky on the site isn’t displaying them, looking into it)

I picked up SWTOR again over the weekend and started fiddling with it. It didn’t take long for me to remember both why I loved that game and why I stopped playing it.


Four years on, there’s a lot of new stuff to find in the game. In my group of friends, everyone has the MMO that we collectively left that they didn’t feel “done” with. For some people, it was FFXIV, for others, The Secret World, and people still trickle back into WoW for brief stints sometimes. For me, that game was SWTOR. I’d always wanted to play through the class stories and see all of them, but I’d never had the time to dedicate to all of that levelling. What got me to check out the game again was the ability to play through the main story of each class exclusively– you can level a character from 1-50 and possibly further simply by doing the main story quests.

It’s a great time, because it keeps the feeling of urgency and the thread of content solid. As separate pieces, the main class stories feel well-paced, although I still feel like some are significantly better than others, but without the need to do a lot of sidequest and flashpoint grinding to keep up in level, I can enjoy them rather than feeling disappointed when the next unlocked class quest doesn’t just blow me away with awesomeness. It also means that when I *do* decide to do a sidequest, it’s because I’m genuinely interested in the story, not because I feel like I have to do it regardless.


It’s gotten me to play classes that I never enjoyed before, and as I’ve relearned how to play, I’ve found myself hooked on the new content that’s been added in the last few years, and I’m looking forward to the upcoming (story-driven) expansion. What got me out of the game initially were rampant bugs in top-end raid content and some very nasty class imbalance issues that came to the fore in higher-tier content (Sage = best healer by a country mile circa January 2004). I’m no longer dealing with any of that. In fact, the spec I always wanted to play (Balance Shadow, now called Serenity) is entirely functional and awesome now.

SWTOR is the one MMO that I’ve played that’s let me fill out the player fantasy I’ve always loved. I can play a finesse-based tank with strong magic– it’s an archetype I’m never allowed to play but it works brilliantly in SWTOR. I’m a battlemage in a way that makes sense and isn’t just about a wizard in platemail, or a warrior with some fancy particle effects. It’s really satisfying and fun to play without feeling brokenly overpowered. I love it. There are still some design decisions in SWTOR that bug me, but that’s true of most games (especially MMOs), and at this point, given the way I’m playing the game, I can overlook them.


All told, it’s been a pretty fun ride. Over the weekend I got my Shadow to 57, a Smuggler to 10, a Jedi Knight to 13, a Sith Inquisitor to 23, a Sage to 10, an Agent to 13, and a Sith Warrior to 8. The idea of doing that when I played last would’ve been laughable. My one complaint is that there’s no way for me to remember which non-class stories are particularly awesome; I know there are sidequests that are awesome and fun, but I don’t know which they are so I’m mostly just not doing any of them unless I remember them specifically.

I should also comment that SWTOR, despite allowing you to log in without paying any money, is a subscription game. I don’t have a problem paying for a subscription (things cost money), but it is something I’m doing to get the full suite of features. It’s worth it to me for at least a little while, but it’s something to consider.

In any case, I’m enjoying my time with the game, and it’s nice to return to an MMO after having been gone for a while. There’s a bit of a uphill climb to get back in the swing of things, but it becomes familiar again surprisingly quickly, and a good (story) hook gets me motivated to put in the effort.

Short Fiction Friday: Prodigies, Part 2

[Another installment of Short Fiction Friday, about a few NPCs from my current Shadowrun campaign. Once again, if you like the art, while I’ve used it for my NPCs, credit goes to — the comic that’s the source of these characters.]

Nick knew the Boston underbelly better than his companions. He hadn’t grown up there, but it was similar to the warrens he’d been driven to when his family cast him out. He returned to old habits quickly, and found places to hide. It had been a while since he’d used his talents, but they came back to him quickly. He made sure they couldn’t be found while they got situated, and he suggested they all stick together. Ken agreed, and Alice was in too much shock to argue. Nick worried about that, but had other work to do first.


Without any kind of formal training, Nick had a hard time explaining technomancy, and what it was he could do. Using his power felt like merging with a computer– on the rare occasions he tried to describe it to someone, he’d liken it to falling backwards into a swimming pool. He was eternally curious how ‘normal’ people worked with computers, because he couldn’t imagine it was like what he did. He swam through streams of data and made little edits and slight alterations as he saw fit. He was aware of defenses, tuned to keep out normals, and he’d developed weapons against them, more fluid and unpredictable than any program. He could even create clones of himself, which would do things he needed them to while he wasn’t around, as if they had a mind of their own. Maybe they did, he wasn’t sure.

He’d been accused of being spacey, before his family had thrown him out for being a “mage freak”, and he’d never been able to explain what was going on. He was paying attention, as best he could, but he was also paying attention to a hundred other things– someone’s nearby text messages, what the screens in four other rooms were displaying, what the cameras were showing. In middle school, he’d been picked out as an easy target and had a larger boy give him grief. It became apparent quickly that the bully was smart enough to seem innocent, sometimes remotely harassing Nick with programs he’d written while sitting attentively in another class. Months of attacks followed; Nick was small and not especially quick-witted, and being distracted by the constant technological cacophony around him made it hard for him to fight back. He spent most of a school year with some injury or another and no friends, thanks to the other boy’s dedicated efforts. It was the first time he’d actually tried to change any of the digital things he observed, and it turned out he was rather good at it. Setting the bully’s phone to blast illegal porn (swiped from another computer he’d found) at full volume in the middle of class had been satisfying, and disabling all inputs so it couldn’t be shut down was doubly so. He considered it justice for the technological, social, and physical abuse he’d endured, and when he glimpsed the boy being led off by Boston Police he didn’t feel any remorse.

Now, his passive awareness was laced with intent. He could feel the gentle tug of Alice or Ken pulling him along when he slowed down, but his mind was ahead of them, checking cameras and making sure they didn’t walk into the field of view, or disabling them if that was impossible. It was exhausting, and sapped his attention, but he knew that they’d be ID’d and found if even one camera saw them. He insisted that they all stick together, explaining why, and the three traveled as a group for the first month of their lives in the shadows. Alice’s money bought them food that first month, and Ken found odd jobs to do to supplement things.


In the second month, they turned to stealing. It started simply– they didn’t have enough money for a full box of biscuits, so Ken bought a half-box and swapped it right after checkout, when he knew no one would catch him. Ken had a knack for that kind of thing, and it kept them eating. He needed to be alone, though, which meant Nick couldn’t protect him. Nick, for his part, was exhausted from the constant vigilance, and was fighting illness. Alice had been keeping to herself, mostly practicing magic and giving the other two money, but the stress was getting to her. They were living in a forgotten concrete box, one of ten thousand like it in the city, and had to occasionally fend off other vagrants. Magic was the easiest for them, and with years of training and natural talent, they easily outclassed anyone who encroached on their space.

The problem was, their use of magic garnered attention. The first few invasions of their adopted home were by the very desperate: violent, drug-fueled types who were beyond reason. Alice had tried to give them a scare, but they were too far gone for it to register. Ken had been out, and Nick had looked up from lying semi-conscious in bed to see Alice get grabbed by two men larger than she was. There was a flare of light, then just Alice and two piles of ashes. Alice got quiet after that, and as Nick slipped in and out of consciousness he saw her talking, crying, and talking again with Ken, and the next time a frothing troll burst into their space she incinerated him without a second thought, an icy expression on her face.


What became a problem was when the sane people tried to move in. They could be reasoned with, and when Alice started conjuring flame, they backed down and fled. Word spread quickly of the mage-kids and their location, and they started having obvious gang members, several fully armed, watching their location. Ken suggested, once again, that they move. Nick had already scouted another location but was feverish and exhausted; they couldn’t go out without him and he’d only gotten sicker. The move was more than he could handle, and as Ken carried him through the Boston streets, he desperately fought to stay conscious so he could turn off that next camera, to fend off the specter of men in uniforms with guns descending on them, that none of them could entirely forget.

Nick lost about a week after that, sick and bedridden. Ken had somehow managed to steal two weeks of food and some medicine, and he and Alice were nursing Nick back to health while ensuring he wasn’t needed to go out. They were out of money and Nick couldn’t keep this up forever. They needed some way of paying for things and they needed to be able to stop worrying about the cameras dotting every street corner.

Ken was the one with the plan, as usual. He was very, very good at finding creative solutions to problems. Near the end of the two weeks, when Nick was finally feeling better, Ken walked in with a large white box. He set the box down and pulled both Alice and Nick outside with him. As they walked, he pointed a camera out to Nick. “Watch that camera, but don’t turn it off unless it tries to alert someone about us”. Nick had seen the camera alerts and had shut them down, but it was taxing to do so; turning the cameras off pre-emptively was usually safer. Ken seemed to know what he was talking about, though, and the three of them walked into sight of the camera, Nick bracing himself for the systemwide alert ping that never came. For the first time in nearly three months, they were standing on the street in full view of a camera with no need to worry. Nick could only stare at Ken as they walked back inside.


Ken was quiet as they walked back, but beelined for the white box as they settled back in. Alice was full of questions and Nick was simply confused, but Ken wasn’t answering anything until he opened the box, passing out some of its contents and showing off the rest. He handed Alice and Nick new ID cards, with new, unfamiliar System Identification Numbers. They were new identities, high quality disguises to make sure they couldn’t be found. They could operate freely, independently, without worry. Ken smiled a tired smile. “We’re going to have to do a bit of work to pay those off. Sorry.”

Ken also held up the box, showing off the rest of its contents. There was a large cake inside, obviously from a higher-end pastry shop above the plate, and in chocolate was written “HAPPY BIRTHDAY NICK”. Another, smaller box contained a single serving of crème brûlée. That night the trio celebrated, relaxing for the first time in months. It was the best crème brûlée Alice had ever tasted.

The Future Is Mobile

So, the Pokemon Go trailer is making the rounds. If you haven’t seen it, it’s here, and I’ve embedded it below.


Curious about the future of MMOs? I’m going to go ahead and say you’re looking at it, right there. It’s tech and concepts that have been around for a while, but it looks like they’re being polished to a mirror shine, and given a context that’s incredibly compelling. Look at what the video is promising– PvE (catching pokemon out in the world), PvP (trainer battles), and endgame raids (the final scene). It’s the essence of MMOs distilled into a mobile platform, and I have a suspicion it’s going to be massive.

Don’t believe me? That video has been up for less than 24 hours and it’s pushing a million hits. Pokemon has an absolutely enormous audience at a really broad age range– basically if you’re likely to own a smartphone, you’re probably familiar with Pokemon. The smartphone gaming market dwarfs any other gaming market you care to name, and it’s way, way more inclusive than other gaming spheres. You’re looking at an MMO that’s able to tap a market that dwarfs anything else out there.

The trailer is brilliant, too. Take a moment to watch it, if you haven’t:

Check out the people it’s showing. Opening shot of the world. We get some rapid cuts to a huge variety of people– a 20-something businessman, a dad and his kid, a studious looking woman, a bunch of teenagers, then a giant crowd at the end. The only child is the one playing with the dad– note: playing WITH the dad. This is a game where everyone can play together, friends with each other, parents with children, people from all walks of life, and everyone’s having a good time. There’s not a lot of advertising, especially in the game sphere, that promises that.

Just to further push that whole “this is a neo-MMO” concept, the trailer manages to capture that wonder of exploring as a newbie, the excitement of PvP, the fun of meeting new people in-game, and the tension and exultation of raid bosses in a three-minute trailer. The structure is identical to the trailers for a ton of other MMOs, down to the order in which everything is portrayed.

I’m pretty excited to see where this goes. It’s obviously a bit early to throw around words like “wow-killer”, nor is that even a meaningful concept anymore, but I have a suspicion that this is the MMO future we’re going to be looking at. I’m honestly pretty excited about it; it goes back to the roots of what got me into MMOs in the first place. I hope it takes off.

Progression Speed

I’m surprised more cooperative games don’t have variations in their progression systems. A given group of people is going to have a pretty different amount of time to spend in a given game than another group, and especially for self-contained games, it seems like there should be a progression speed slider. I’m mostly looking at tabletop RPGs and multi-session board games here; I’ve been playing the Shadowrun: Crossfire board game with some friends lately, and while I think it’s a great game, it has insanely slow progression.


Here’s how the game works: You have a character who starts with a basic deck. As a session (a “run”) progresses, your deck is going to increase as you play, and at the end of the session you flush the entire thing, and get a certain amount of XP (Karma) based on how successful the run is. You can then use this Karma to purchase upgrades, which change how you start the game and give you particular special abilities. It’s a neat system, and the ability to add on various means to make the runs harder on yourself for greater rewards is neat.

However, progression is SLOW. With a fresh group starting from scratch, you will have to win two games or lose five to get to your first upgrade; you’ll be playing the same mission each time until then. You’re not going to have the edge you need to go for any of the bonuses, and the game is pretty difficult; you stand a fair chance of losing each run. That first jump isn’t so bad, the first tier karma benefits are 5 karma apiece and you have one free slot to upgrade into. Here’s where it gets silly. To unlock another “slot”, you need to pay 10 karma, twice what you needed to get the first one. You THEN need to buy the upgrade, and upgrades cost anywhere from 5 to 50 karma, in increments of 5-10. You’re looking at a LONG time between your first and second upgrade, and a really long time before you’re looking at a fully kitted out character who can even attempt some of the harder missions.


The missions have expected karma levels, and some of the higher-tier ones suggest you have 75-100 karma at minimum to attempt them. That is a TON of playing this game just to get to that point– even the higher-tier missions only grant 4-6 karma each, and optional difficulty boosts add 1-2 karma apiece, and will rapidly overwhelm you.

We opted to simply double the experience gain, so that we could purchase fun upgrades after the first session and so that we can actually get to later missions. For our group, we might play this game once or twice a month, which, at 3-6 karma a session, is more than a year to reach the later missions, optimistically. It’s a fun game, but I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t need to have progression quite that slow. We’re speeding things up and should be able to do other interesting variants more quickly (and have more interesting options).

It’s a pretty minor tweak that works well in Shadowrun: Crossfire, and it makes the overall experience for the group a lot better– we can keep it fresh and different without spending a ton of time doing the same missions. It puts me in mind of the way I handle XP when I run tabletop games. I have a standing rule that experience is held constant across the party, so that everyone is always at the same experience level. It makes things better for people who can’t make every single session and it makes it a LOT easier for me to build and tune encounters; I know what kinds of things the party can handle.


I also give out XP to match the pace of the campaign. I used to make campaigns that were open-ended, but I’d fizzle out at some point and the story would falter. Now I plan a single significant arc and sometimes a few side arcs; the story has a specific end point that marks the conclusion of the story. If that means that I grant players a level every session for a few sessions, just so they can face whatever enemy I’ve got waiting in the wings, that’s fine– if we finish one game we can start another, and I usually start planning the next campaign about 1/3 to 1/2 of the way into my current one, so there’s always something ready to go.

I think that there’s a lot of value in tuning your game experience to the group you’re playing with, and it’s surprising to me that more games don’t have those options built-in. Certainly it’s not hard to just write house rules to suit you, but it’s interesting to me how many of the reviews of Shadowrun: Crossfire slam the game for its slow progression, and how many veteran D&D players mope about starting new level 1 characters, because it “takes so long to get to the good stuff”. Neither of those need be true.


Having talked to various people about house rules and other things, I’ve noticed that there’s often a moment of shock when I suggest changing the rules as they’re written to something that works better for us. Some people are staunchly opposed to it, other people look at me and have, in some cases, outright asked “wait, you can DO that?” as if there needed to be some permission to make the game more enjoyable.

The answer, really, is yes, yes you can. There are a number of games that I don’t like, but after a few rules tweaks are a lot of fun for me. If it’s a game I’m just playing with my friends who have the same viewpoint, why not change things so we can enjoy it more? It seems like a no-brainer.

Investing in the Experience

There is an old game development philosophy, now considered outdated, that suggests that players should have to ‘earn’ their fun in a game. It’s the source of the “grind”, and it’s where the idea of pitifully weak low-level characters who grow to be powerful comes from. A lot of games have their really fun, exciting levels a little ways in, and in older arcade games, you’d have to be really good or pump in a lot of quarters to reach them.


You can pretty easily see when and where it fell out of favor, and in which genres. RPGs made you work your way through quite a bit of experience before you had interesting abilities and weapons. First-person shooters made you go through several levels with very simple weapons before you got to play with anything really cool. MMORPGs would make you spend weeks or months fighting boars and wolves before getting powerful enough to even fight an enemy of a player race, much less something big like a griffon or dragon.

I’ve seen this elsewhere as well– I’ve talked before about certain TV shows having really slow or confusing opening episodes, which set up significant payoffs later on down the line. It’s something I’ve noticed an incredible amount of in anime, and while I don’t watch as much American TV, quite a few people I know who watch a lot of it tell me the same is true there. Bel commented over the weekend that he doesn’t decide if he likes a show or not until four or five episodes in at least, and it’s a rule I’ve adopted for anime as well.

There’s a flip side to the concept of “earning” enjoyment out of a piece of entertainment. If you’re invested in an experience, you’re a lot more likely to enjoy it, and if you have to work to get that investment, you’re going to value it more. It’s a fairly straightforward bit of psychology that crops up pretty much everywhere, and it’s fairly clear here as well. Things that are easy to get into are also easy to get out of; the games and shows I remember the most about are the ones I had to do some work to get invested in, whereas the easy shows don’t tend to stick with me as much.


As an example, I can’t really remember much about what happens in Azumanga Daioh, despite liking that show quite a bit when I watched it. It was easy to sit down and watch and while I have a vague recollection of it and I know it’s relatively simple, I can’t recall specifics even on rewatching episodes. On the other hand, in rewatching Baccano recently, I realized that I remembered pretty much everything that happened in the show, and with a brief memory jog could name characters and even specific scenes. Baccano is a much more complex, much less accessible show, and I had to put some effort into it. The payoff was fantastic, and it’s one of my favorite shows, but it requires that effort– that investment– to get the most out of it. Its spiritual successor, Durarara, had a similarly slow first episode, but once I got into it I was absolutely hooked, and it’s propelled itself easily into my top list of favorite shows.

I find myself seeking that investment in my entertainment– I want shows and games that I need to put a bit of effort into before they pay off. It’s something I’ve recently realized drives a lot of my interests; a lot of people like entertainment that they describe as “a way to turn my brain off”, and I’ve very rarely enjoyed that kind of experience. A lot of my friends are playing Diablo again recently, and it’s a game I’ve tried to like but don’t really enjoy most of the time– not because it isn’t fun, but because I don’t find it engaging and I get bored. In a similar vein, when I load up a new stealth game, I tend to crank the difficulty all the way up. I’d wondered why I do this, but it fits nicely into the idea of investing in the experience. It makes the game harder, so I have to work at it, and as a result I enjoy it more, because my victories feel more real. When I play minis games, I’ve put in the effort to acquire, assemble, and often paint the models I have, and in most cases I’ve constructed themes and narratives around them, so they feel weighty and meaningful.


FFXIV has an incredibly slow start compared to other recent MMOs– it’s a LONG time before you’ve got a variety of cool abilities and even have the basic mechanics of the game unlocked– it’s level 30 at least, sometimes later, and your class doesn’t feel like a complete concept until 50 in many cases. There’s a ton of mandatory story and a lot of things you simply have to do in order to progress. One of the criticisms levelled at Heavensward was that you had to play through the entire story of the game, including all of the main story content patches, just to even access the expansion content. For a lot of people, this was a wall that they had to climb to get into the new, cool areas they just paid for. However, the story of FFXIV is so central to the experience that a lot of what happens in Heavensward would be either nonsensical or have no impact if you could skip all of that content. The game forces you to invest some time (and, to be fair, rewards you fairly well if you’d not previously done it) so that you’re in a position to appreciate the new content.

I’m tempted to say I’m torn on this– that on the one hand I really do value the experiences I didn’t instantly love but came to enjoy a lot more than the ones I liked from the start, but that I also despise grinding and doing repetitive, grindy content just to “get to the fun part”. I’m really not torn at all, though. The investment is valuable, it just needs to be applied properly. The show has to be well-written, or the game well-designed, so that there is a satisfying payoff after you put in the investment. It’s got to feel like your time and effort are respected.


There’s a certain amount of trust that goes into it as well. You’ve got to be willing to trust that this thing you’re experiencing that seems like utter crap right now is going to all be worthwhile later. It’s a tall order, because we’re so inundated with quick, thoughtless entertainment experiences that aren’t trying to be thought-provoking or offer any payoff other than the immediate. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this kind of entertainment– it has its time and its place– but it’s very difficult to tell off the bat whether you’re dealing with something shallow or something deep until you’ve put a bit of time into it.

This isn’t to say that all meaningful, thought-provoking entertainment experiences have to be obtuse and inaccessible at first; what I *am* torn about is whether that’s a good idea. While it certainly forces me to put effort in, it’s also really good at losing me. I have to go digging for the hook, and sometimes it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be a hook to find.


That having been said, my track record thus far with shows I haven’t liked at first but have put effort into is really great. Of the shows I’ve watched at least four episodes of this year, there’ve been two that I’m not enthused about watching more of, out of twenty or thirty by now. It’s a really good track record. Games have been starkly less good, though I think a lot of that is because my feelings on playing games has been changing since I stopped working on them, but it’s easy to fall into old “force yourself to play” habits.

Part of me is looking at the new Metal Gear Solid game– a series I haven’t played in a decade by now, and wondering if it’s worth the investment. Certainly I know a lot of people who are very into that series, and while it seems like inaccessible nonsense from the outside, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a solid (ha!) payoff for the invested player. I’ve got other games to play right now, and no disposable income for an MGS game, but still, I wonder.

Short Fiction Friday: Prodigies, Part 1

[Another installment of Short Fiction Friday, about a few NPCs from my current Shadowrun campaign. This and all future entries will be written on the spot, please forgive a lack of editing, this is all one pass. Enjoy! If you like the art, while I’ve used it for my NPCs, credit goes to — the comic that’s the source of these characters.]

art credit:

art credit:

Alice missed crème brûlée. Once a month, if she’d gotten good grades, her parents would take her out to a fancy restaurant in Harvard Square Upper. She would read the menu, read about the restaurant in wonder as she always had. It was called Finale, and according to the story in the menu, it had been around for almost 75 years. It had vanished in the mid 2020s, but had been revitalized a decade later by an elf who’d remembered it from his college years. She loved the story, that a restaurant could have such history and endure through so much, and she’d always happily read it, pretending to her parents that she was deciding what she wanted to order, then order the crème brûlée, like she always did. While she waited for it to come, she’d look around the restaurant.

Finale sat on the edge of the massive plate atop which the higher-class citizens of Boston lived. Its awe-inspiring view drew Alice’s parents, but she was always more interested in the interior. It had beautiful glass chandeliers and glasses in interesting shapes, and she didn’t like the reminder that she lived atop a massive plate over the rest of the city, she just wanted to enjoy her dessert. Her parents would get something her dad called “ice wine”, but it wasn’t anything like the heavy, sour red wine they otherwise drank. It was a clear, peach color, and if she’d been really good and gotten really good grades, she’d get a little taste. It was sweet, but hinted at flavors she was still too young to really understand. She’d found it, once, on a job at some posh businessman’s apartment. It was the same as what her father always ordered, and seeing the price tag on the bottle reminded her of everything she’d given up. She’d never be able to afford even a glass of it, much less a bottle. She hadn’t been able to resist having a taste.


Ken was the one who’d figured out what she’d done, a few days later. She’d left DNA evidence on the bottle when she’d had a sip, and it’s how the police got information on them. She never figured out how he knew; that was his knack– knowing things. Alice’s knack was a lot less subtle. She was good with the elements. Her instructors at school called her a “pyromantic prodigy”, and she’d quickly spread from fire to other elements. She’d been told that people who were particularly gifted with one element generally had a hard time learning an opposing one, and she took it as a challenge. Just to prove a point, she passed her second level apprenticeship tests as an aquamancer, three years earlier than the school had ever seen before, using an element diametrically opposed to what she’d seemed most attuned to. Prodigy was an understatement. Her parents had been thrilled, particularly when she’d been invited to the Oxford Academy for Gifted Magi at an unprecedented age. She’d gotten to eat TWO crème brûlées that time.

Oxford was far away, a boarding school, and Alice was initially terrified of the place. It didn’t help that, at age twelve, she was younger than almost every other student there. There was only one student younger than she was, an electromancer named Nicholas, who wanted everyone to just call him Nick. He was eleven, and the two of them bonded quickly. Nick was cheerful and vibrant, and Alice enjoyed his company. Together they weathered some awkward years, as they both grew into teenagers. She was there for Nick’s first heartbreak at the hands of another boy, and he helped her work up the courage to approach a slightly older student and ask him to a school dance.

The older boy was named Ken, a mage like the two of them. Alice never had to ask the question; she just walked up to Ken and he looked straight at her and said “Yes, I’d love to go with you”. It was a shock, and her expression must have given something away, because Ken was almost immediately just as flustered, apologizing for being too forthright and looking abashed. He explained later that it was his knack, knowing things, but that sometimes– particularly when he was nervous– he had trouble remembering what he was already supposed to know and what he wasn’t. After the initial awkwardness, Alice and Ken became fast friends, and Nick helped Alice pick out her dress. A little later, he helped her pick out a second dress, a much fancier, much more elegant one. When she asked why, he winked and grinned. “For prom… eventually, you know? Ken’ll love it.”


Alice, Nick, and Ken became fast friends at Oxford, and Alice learned more about their histories. Nick was from a poor family, and Nick’s penchant for accidentally damaging their limited electronics meant that they put him in a foster program for mages very young. He’d proven he had incredible talent, and Oxford had picked him up, offering him a free ride. He’d taken it, knowing it was his only hope to get out of poverty. Ken didn’t talk much about his family, but Alice had pieced together that something horrible had happened to them, and that he was at Oxford because he’d somehow survived whatever had happened and was paying for it with inheritance money. Alice introduced the other two to her parents when they came to visit, and they became her companions during breaks, spending it at their parents’ home in Boston.

It was on one of those visits that things took a turn for the worse. Nick was having trouble in classes, and Alice and Ken were trying to teach him. Frustrated and defeated by the advanced electromancy skills he was supposed to have mastered (and that Alice had been able to effortlessly pick up while studying with him), he revealed that he only had a middling talent with electricity. He confessed that it had been a front the entire time– his real talent wasn’t elemental at all. He could dive into the wireless Matrix and manipulate it, changing things like a masterful hacker, entirely without any sort of equipment. He was a technomancer. His parents had kicked him out of the house when they’d found out that he was “some kind of freak mage”, and no one he’d spoken to had any idea what kind of magic he had. People were suspicious, and whenever anything inexplicably went wrong while he was around, anyone who knew his power would cast blame his direction. He used the computers at Alice’s home to show off a bit of what he was capable of, showing them some internal corporate memos that he was able to seemingly conjure from nothing.

Ken’s response was immediate. His gaze from behind his glasses became glassy, the look Alice had come to associate with Ken’s unique form of magic. Almost dreamily, he spurred the other two to action, getting them to grab their bags, still only partially unpacked, and move. They’d learned to listen when Ken got this way, and followed his instructions. He got the two of them out of the house mere moments before a corporate black ops team descended on Alice’s home. Chased by the sounds of gunfire and rising flames over her once home, Alice’s life was shattered, and she and her only two friends vanished into Boston. After a life of living in the sunshine, above the Boston Plate, Alice disappeared into the Boston underworld, the shadowy world beneath the Plate.


–to be continued–

Learning Japanese: Vocabulary

I’ve hit the point in my Japanese studies where what I really need to do is build a ton of vocabulary. I have a reasonable grounding of basic grammar and sentence structure, and I need more vocabulary so I can start learning quirks and learning how to put pieces together.


It’s made more difficult by the lack of good resources. Straight translation isn’t necessarily the best, because there are shades of meaning in word use that I don’t yet know. In English, “friend”, “companion”, “partner”, and “teammate” can be used in very similar ways, sometimes interchangeably, but they’re different enough that you can’t just pick one and use it universally. Introducing your lover as a “friend” is a quick route to hurt feelings, and referring to a friend as your “partner” makes a few suggestions that you might not intend.

It’s a severe pitfall when learning a new language, and it’s one of those things that draws a stark line between the fluent and the learner. I’m probably getting a bit ahead of myself by thinking about this sort of thing this early on, but I can’t help but want to know the proper, appropriate way of saying what I want to say, and understanding both how and why it differs from a literal translation. Growing up, I always chuckled a bit at classmates who would scoff at learning multiple words with similar meanings– they would wonder why there needed to be two or three or four words that “meant the same thing”, and I’d wonder what the differences were, and why there were multiple words that meant the same thing.


As a result, I’m very sensitive to the idea that, in Japanese, a single kanji can have multiple meanings, and that clever wordplay and eloquence revolves around using the right word in the right place, seemingly moreso than English. It makes me want to have the same breadth of vocabulary I have in English so that I can be more precise in my speech. I know I want to eventually be an eloquent speaker, and I know I need to have a broader understanding of the language to know what eloquence even means in a language that isn’t English.

To get there, though, I need vocabulary, and I have to learn it somehow. Rote memorization isn’t getting me very far– I’m good at it when it comes to abstractions like the hiragana and katakana, but when it comes to attaching concepts to words I’m a lot weaker. I’ve considered starting to memorize kanji, using the same techniques that I used for hiragana and katakana, but it hasn’t been very successful thus far because I’m not always sure what words to start with and how to use them. I have, for example, picked up 私 (watashi, “I/me”) because it’s extremely useful and relatively straightforward, but I’m continually forgetting 音 (sound, noise, note) because I’m not really sure how to use it properly.


I find myself wishing I could take the opportunity to immerse myself completely in the language and just be lost for a while until I make the connections I need. This would be a uniquely awful experience for me, because communication is so important to me, but it would accelerate my learning a lot, and I’d learn how to use the language properly. I’m not sure there are good opportunities for me to do this, though.

In the meantime, I’m memorizing how to count various things. It’s a process.

Delivering Story in Multiplayer

I’m pretty excited about Divinity: Original Sin 2, and booted up the first one with Kodra this past evening to mess around a bit. It reminded me a lot of playing the game before, with Ashgar, and some of the difficulties we ran into.


The biggest issue is that there is a LOT of story in Divinity: Original Sin. It’s delivered in classic RPG style, through NPC dialogue, which means things tend to either go over the head of the player not actively engaged or forward motion is slowed to a crawl as everyone makes sure everyone else is finished reading.

The first D:OS feels like a big, expansive place with a lot of stuff to do, and there really is. After a short tutorial area, you’re dropped into a fairly big town with 50+ NPCs, many of which will have quests for you, and all of which have something to say. You can stumble across what’s probably the main plotline of the game in what seems like an accident, and you can do everything from robbing the town blind to picking a fight with the city guard and losing horribly. It’s an incredible amount of freedom, but it slows down the pace of the start of the game immensely. It’s entirely possible to spend 2-3 hours or more in the town faffing about before actually going to DO much of anything, and you can go from levels 1 to 3 fairly easily.


It’s possible, of course, to leave the town after a relative minimum of NPC conversation, but it’s still a pretty big time investment where you’re still kind of figuring out the game before you get back into out-and-out adventuring. There’s some really cool potential stuff here, where I can go off and do some shopping while my partner picks up quests, and then he can brief me on what we’re doing. It means there’s stuff for a “face” character to do and be effective without forcing everyone else in the party to simply watch.

That having been said, though, you do all of this in the city before you actually get to go out and test the waters as far as combat, adventuring, etc go. I like the heavy roleplay-y nature of the game, but it loses something in the pacing, and there’s not a lot of good messaging to get you to go out of the town and do more than just talk to NPCs.

On the other hand, the game has a lot of rich storytelling going on and an absolutely mindblowing amount of content, even in just the first town. There are a ton of interweaving questlines and some genuinely interesting NPCs (including a whole bunch of animals that have stuff to say and quests to give to you if you’ve taken a particular perk, but just moo or meow at you otherwise). Were I playing the game singleplayer, I’d spend a bunch of time talking to every NPC and getting all of the story and just absorbing it all at my own pace.


In multiplayer, however, there’s a sense of urgency that seems to crop up. There’s a sense that we want to be together, fighting enemies and moving forward in some dungeon or other area, and that anything getting in the way of that is boring. Talking to NPCs is necessary, but there’s a pressure to rush and get to the more interactive parts, and you lose out on a lot of story in so doing. It’s very similar to the MMO problem, where players just click through text as fast as possible, and have to make a conscious effort to stop and take in the story. As soon as there are other players involved, it becomes all go go go fight fight fight all the time and the story gets pushed to the wayside.

As someone who really loves story in games, but also loves co-op, this bugs me. There are very few story-driven multiplayer games out there, and even the really outstanding ones (Borderlands) tend to be extremely light on story interactivity. Divinity: Original Sin has a lot of story and a whole lot of interactivity within that story, but presented as a multiplayer experience there’s a feeling that you need to rush through it, or a real risk of getting bored waiting around for the rest of the party.


I’m very interested in the sequel, especially because I feel like the expanded party size from 2 to 4 will allow much more focused builds and some really interesting character options, but I’m also worried that that’ll dilute the storytelling even more. I suspect the solution is on the player side– talk a lot, over voicechat, about everything that’s going on. Retell parts of the story to your friends while you play and keep people from getting bored. It also means people are constantly checking up on each other, rather than going off and doing their own thing while playing “together”.

It’s still not the most elegant solution to the problem, and it’s a non-trivial game design problem to solve. It’s something I’ve been mulling over for a while and haven’t found a nice way to fix.

PAX 2015 (Part 2)

I talked quite a bit yesterday about PAX as an experience, but I didn’t really talk much about what I saw and did at the show.


I should probably preface all of this by talking about how I go through PAX. I tend to play very few games at the show– I’ll watch screens on a lot of them and sometimes talk to the folks at the booth, but mostly what I do is bookmark games I’m interested in and move on. Part of this is that I don’t really want to know too much about a game before I play it, so I can get the full experience without preconceived notions. I do this elsewhere, too. As soon as I see a trailer or an announcement of a game I know I want, I bookmark it and stop reading anything about it. It’s been great for keeping hype under control, and I enjoy those games a lot more than I did when I devoured every bit of info I could find and created a grand vision of the perfect game in my head.

As a result, at PAX I tend to skim games I already know I want to play. Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, Dreadnought, Battleborn, Gigantic, FFXV, Fallout 3, Dishonored 2, and quite a few others had a pretty significant presence, but I already knew I wanted to play them so I checked out the booths and moved on. I’m going to play them, I don’t need to see more. What I wanted to do was spend more time with games I’d either never heard of or wasn’t convinced I’d be interested in.


Here’s a quick rundown of the games I spent a bit of time with, what I thought of them, and which of the two categories they fell into:

Sword Coast Legends: I didn’t get to play this one, because the line was insane, but it’s one of the games I’ve been the most interested in messing around with. I love the idea of a game with a bunch of players and a DM, where it actually works well for the DM to create and manipulate content as you play; it’s a really neat idea that I’d like to see succeed. The concept looks great, but I don’t know how the game itself is. Still, almost certainly picking this up unless some serious red flags crop up.

FFXIV: Not a new game, but the first time I’ve been at a convention that had a Battle Challenge. Kodra, Ashgar, Paragon (GIntrospection) and I managed to get in line for it on Friday and take on Ravana. It’s the only game I waited more than five minutes to play and it was a ton of fun. The four of us were grouped with four very new players– one who’d gotten a character up to level 30, months back, and three who’d never played the game before. We managed to win, and it was great coordinating with new folks and making sure they got a win (and a cool shirt, too!)


The Magic Circle: I’ve been following this game for a while now, and hadn’t realized it’d launched. At some point soon I’m going to boot it up and give it a shot, because I think the premise is interesting and I haven’t played a super meta game lately. The idea is that you play a character in a video game that’s been in development hell for twenty years, and you fight your way through old junk code and scrapped ideas and bugs as well as pulling from other games that the company has developed to find your way to freedom.

Shadowrun: Catalyst: This is the Shadowrun board game that I’ve heard about, and Kodra, Ashgar and I got to play a demo of it. It’s a cooperative deckbuilding game where you fight Shadowrun-style enemies and get new gear, levels, etc. It’s very reminiscent of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, just set in the Shadowrun universe with a greater emphasis on teamwork rather than exploration. I liked the demo we played a lot, and I’m interested in seeing what else the game has to offer.

The Black Watchmen: The ARG leading up to the Secret World’s launch was incredibly fun, and one of the big groups that featured heavily was called The Black Watchmen. The idea’s since spun off into its own game with similar themes, as an episodic game with fiendish puzzles to solve as a group and a compelling overarching plot. There’s a very real chance I’m going to make it the Aggrochat Game of the Month next time I have the chance, and if that doesn’t work out, I’ll at least see if I can’t talk Kodra into giving it a shot with me.


That Dragon, Cancer: Fourteen sads out of ten, and I just played what they had at the booth. This is an incredibly compelling game that I’m honestly not in a good enough place emotionally to be able to handle, but I’m really glad exists. This kind of thing is Kodra’s bread and butter, and I’m certain we’ll hear him cheerfully describe how brutally it inflicted its misery on him. Also would be a good candidate for Aggrochat GOTM except I wouldn’t be able to play it and I suspect the rest of the crew would be depressed by it. Still, for as much as I’ve commented on games needing more emotions than just “angry” and “sad”, I think this one is a good thing to have tugging at the heartstrings and making you think.

Hob: The next big thing by the Torchlight team, Hob is a metroidvania-style platformer where you play as a robot thing with a grappling hook wandering around gorgeous weird magi-tech ruins and probably other places. It still needs work, but it’s one I’m going to keep an eye on.

Ultimate Chicken Horse: This weird little game is probably my best in show, just for being pure, simple fun. It’s a co-op-etitive platformer in the now-standard Nintendo style, the one where you want to stab your friends to death at the end. It’s an incredibly simple premise: you and up to three other players are put into a mostly blank platforming level with a start and a finish. You can’t get from the start to the finish, but at the start of each round you open a party box where people get to pick objects to place in the level. At first, these are platforms, boxes, things to jump on and otherwise help you get to the finish. Whoever gets to the finish gets a point. If everyone (or no one) gets to the finish, no one gets any points. You’ll play the same level multiple times, until someone’s gotten three points, and as the rounds go on the objects become less helpful and more harmful, spike traps, projectiles, slippery ice, glue, all things to make it harder to get to the finish. As you place traps, you’re betting that you’re a better platformer than everyone else and that they’ll fall into your clever traps, so you’ll be the only one to get points. It’s a delightful party game and the most surprising and fun game I saw at the show.

I am, at this point, utterly exhausted. My sleep schedule is heavily late-night shifted, and I’ve been getting up a solid four hours before I usually do all weekend, but not managing to get to sleep any sooner. I’m good at putting a functional face on it for a while, but I could feel it slipping today. I’m going to sleep for a while.

If I didn’t catch you at PAX, I hope you had a great time, and I’m sorry I missed you!

PAX 2015

PAX East has always been a high-energy, high-stress convention for me. There are so many people I want to catch up with, especially this year, and never enough time to give people the time I feel they deserve. Especially this year, where I feel like I dropped the ball on catching up with everyone, I’m sorry if I missed you.



This year is the first time I’ve been to PAX Prime (I still prefer to think of it as PAX West), and I wasn’t sure what it would be like going to PAX in a city I live in. It’s very tempting to get a hotel room near the convention center in the future, despite living not far away, because parking is serious business. I pretty much have to show up as the show opens in order to have a hope of parking, and I can’t be as lax about wandering to parties and so forth. My days have to be a lot more planned, especially when I’m there with other folks, because transportation is a thing.

On the other hand, having Kodra and Ashgar at the show was great. I’ve been slowly re-acclimating to games over the last year– I hadn’t realized how stressful video games had become for me, and how thoroughly I’d detached from them. While actively working in the industry, I’d considered it a part of the job to be as caught up as possible on the games that were coming out. I would buy and play through four or five complete games a month, from stuff I really loved to stuff I didn’t care for but I knew was relevant to truly awful games that might have a nugget of a good idea in there somewhere.


It was exhausting, and when I left the industry to focus on my Master’s degree, I gave myself permission to play only the games I REALLY felt like playing, and I found myself barely playing anything. I went from playing games 30-40 hours a week to going entire weeks without booting up a video game, or barely clocking an hour or two of raid time in FFXIV. Years of forcing myself to play everything has made me really good at being patient with entertainment media, but really hurt my enjoyment of video games as a whole. Letting myself play only what I really felt like meant that, for a while, I played nothing and loved it, and I’m slowly getting myself back into games that I like.

I’m trying to avoid feeling obligated to play things, even though I am. I still feel like I don’t log enough time in FFXIV for my guild, and it was a struggle to play through everything surrounding this month’s Aggrochat Game Of The Month, which contributed to putting less FFXIV time in. Still, I’m letting myself only play what I feel like playing for the most part, and as a result I’m enjoying what I do play that much more. I’ve also discovered an upside to my tolerance for forcing my way through things– when faced with a slow-starting game or show, I have the patience to get through the rocky beginnings to get to the better stuff.


Back to PAX, though. I haven’t been to a PAX in two years, and the last one I was at I was working for a big chunk of it– fun, but exhausting. I don’t feel like I belong at PAX anymore– not because the show isn’t welcoming (I’ve had some fantastic ad-hoc conversations with various people throughout the weekend), but because I’m a lot different than I was the last time I was at PAX. I don’t have the boundless font of energy for the show, and I’m a lot pickier and better-informed about the games I want to play. I’ve never been much for playing games at the show, but I was able to make a circuit of the expo hall in about two hours and see everything I was interested in seeing, making a little note of a number of games to keep an eye on.

I remember being energized at previous shows, and being excited to spend a bunch of time at various booths, trying various games, and going to a bunch of parties and events and whatnot. I don’t have that same drive this time. I’m tired of the show fairly quickly, and I don’t have much of anything I particularly want to do there. I feel like I’m doing something wrong, or that something’s wrong with me, particularly since my companions are FAR more excited and driven to be at the show than I am. I worry that I’m bringing down their weekend, because I don’t have the same threshold for it as they do, and even though I’m pushing myself to the limit of what I can manage, I feel like I’m still dragging them away.

I honestly wonder how much has actually changed. Thinking back, I’ve often ducked out and decompressed on my own in the hotel room, or wandered around solo for a time at other shows (something I haven’t done much of this year). In writing this, I’m coming to realize that PAX has always been a show about people for me, about catching up with friends I don’t often get to see. It’s not the games, it’s the friends. I’ve gotten to spend the weekend with two of my closest friends, and that has been fantastic, with or without PAX itself.