How I Design: Returning to the Moment (Finale)

Previous entries, for a refresher:

Part 1: Worldbuilding

Part 2: The Chapter

Part 3: The Moment

Part 4: The Medium

Part 5: The Message

I’ve put together all the pieces of the scene, our player finally tracking down a rogue mage in Atlanta, working through mage gangs to do it. I want to talk briefly about the pieces of this sequence in-game, and then go piece by piece to talk about how I’d build it.

It might be a bit cliché to talk about the three-act structure, but it’s really important here. It’s a really solid, really familiar framework for pacing, and when we lack it in our entertainment, it makes that entertainment feel badly paced (often, it is!). We normally think of the three-act structure in terms of the overall story, but it scales to a variety of sizes, from the overall story itself to an individual scene, or level, in a game. Here’s how I’d apply the structure to the scene we’re setting up:

–Act 1: Exposition–

We don’t have a lot of exposition here, because we’ve (theoretically) set it up in the previous few hours of gameplay. We’ve communicated a lot up to this point, and this scene is the climax of the story arc. There are two types of exposition in a game: explicit and implicit. Explicit exposition is text you read, or spoken dialogue, or cutscenes, or mission briefs. It’s the moment where the player is aware that the game is telling them something. Implicit exposition is how we subtly suggest how the player should play, either how they should move through the space, what they should pay attention to, or how to defeat their enemies, using visual or nonverbal audio cues. When the music slowly ramps up before a major boss fight, that’s implicit exposition. When you see a skeleton on a strange-looking floor panel and realize there’s a trap there, that’s also implicit exposition. When you follow lights through a dark area to find where to go, that’s another form.

We don’t have a lot to set up here as far as explicit exposition goes, but we will have to set up the area. We’re going to want to establish the play space. Notably, I want there to be some dialogue with the rogue mage character, and I don’t want the player distracted by the space. A nearly-abandoned building at night in a bad part of town works really well here– I can have the player move deeper and deeper into this building as part of the setup, and then have to fight their way out with the rogue mage at their side. This gives me some time to work on the first impression for this character, and having her help out the player in a tense situation is a good way to establish that early.

Act 1 will be moving through the (relatively quiet) space, getting a feel for the layout and looking for the rogue mage. I want it to be tense but not actually dangerous– in fact, I’m really likely to have few if any enemies in the building proper, and the only things that might exist are environmental traps. The whole of Act 1 should take relatively little time– 5 minutes or so, because it’s going to be very low-action and dragging that out isn’t interesting.

I set up this segment last. All of the rest of it has to work first, so that I know what I’m setting up. The biggest part of this is planning out Acts 2 and 3 with my art team, then coming back to it. For me, a lot of this is running through the space over and over again, working out little details and planning out how long it takes to get from place to place. I’ll return to how I set this up once the other two acts are crystallized.

–Act 2: The Spark–

Act 2 is where things really get rolling. The transition from Act 1 to Act 2 should be the moment of weightlessness as the roller coaster crests the very first rise.

That transition moment is the first really touchy, really difficult segment of the sequence. If I’m working with cutscenes, that’s where I’m building one of them, and if I’m not, it’s where I’m setting up a heavily scripted sequence. The player isn’t getting out of this sequence without a fight, and I’m not interested in setting up the rogue mage as the boss of this area, because I need the player to like her for the next part of the game. We also need to wrap up her situation with the rival gang boss, which we can neatly do here– he’ll be our final encounter.

The transition moment is the moment where the player’s conversation with the rogue mage is cut off by the hideout being attacked– in this case by the rival gang boss. To play up her reputation and set up a more interesting scene, we’ll have the gang boss’ main ploy be burning down the building with you and her in it. If we want to be tricky, and depending on the tone of the game, we can have the main gang member that the player’s been dealing with have been the rival gang boss all along, but we run the risk of things being a little too pat when we do that. In a choice-heavy game, where the player might side against the rogue mage and take the gang boss as an ally instead, this might work.

Either way, our transition to Act 2 is the first shattering molotov cocktail against the building, or the activating sprinklers. I want a beat, for the player to realize along with the characters that everything is about to go very wrong, and then action ramps up quickly– “We have to get out of here!”

I want this transition scene to be easily triggerable on the backend so that I can tweak the timing. I should be able to paste a single command and have it run so that I can see it and make tweaks, because it’ll need a LOT of work.

What we’re going to have here is the player moving in reverse through the space they just walked through, only with some noticable changes. I want the path back to be recognizable but blatantly different (in this case, largely on fire) and we can use environmental changes to alter the path– big patches of fire, collapsing hallways and stairwells, etc. A lot of this will get planned out with the level designer and artist(s), if they’re someone other than me, to figure out which rooms have the key encounters and where there will be slightly longer run-time segments to squeeze in a few lines of dialogue (hallways are good for this).

This is also where I want to plan out the enemies. I need the building to transition very quickly from quiet to burning down, and I want to play up the enemies a bit– cowardly is a theme. Fire elementals work well for this, syncing nicely with the environment and making a lot more sense than a bunch of gang members running into a burning building to make sure the occupants are dead.

This also gives us a lever to extend the sequence if it turns out we need more gameplay– if the fire elementals are coming from some sort of summoning apparatus hastily set up throughout the building, we can then have a secondary objective of disabling the summoning. If necessary, this also gives us a good way to characterize our rogue mage– she either doesn’t want to risk innocents or she thinks wasting time disabling summoning circles is a bad idea; we can communicate this in one or two lines of dialogue and, because it’s delivered in a high intensity situation, it will stick with the player a bit more.

The other technical detail that’s important here is how well the game engine supports active AI companions– this is often a nasty sticking point, and the way the sequence plays out relies on this bit of tech. It’s really important to know the limitations before going into something like this– we can spend days or weeks trying to get a sequence where the rogue mage follows along and fights with you to feel good and still fall short, or we can have a fantastic sequence where the mage is watching you on security cameras, having sent you to stop the attackers while she performs some other useful off-camera task. That last bit is important– we need the player to believe in the competence of the rogue mage for later on, and to make this whole story arc seem worthwhile, so we want her doing something valuable if she’s not fighting alongside the player, and if she *is* fighting alongside the player, the player should be glad to have her along. Getting this wrong is how you get a lot of famously terrible game characters, and having an experience shoehorned in that the game doesn’t support well sours the experience.

This is the most action-intensive sequence and will require the most playtesting. I HIGHLY recommend a checkpoint immediately as the action part of Act 2 starts, with possible extra checkpoints scattered after major encounters in the section (if it proves to be long). I personally spend quite a lot of time running around the space and visualizing combat to set up these sorts of sequences, so that I don’t find myself surprised when I go to set up fights in the space. I also like to plan for about 20-50% more combat space for discrete separate encounters than I think I need. Movement doesn’t take long and if there’s nothing doing in a given room I can use it for a dialogue line, and if I suddenly need to cram more combat into a full space, it makes the sequence feel long and tedious, because there isn’t constant forward motion.

–Act 3: Finale and Denoument–

At the end of the sequence, we drop the player off in a boss arena, where they’ll face off against the opposing gang leader and possibly henchmen. We’ve set up this characters specifically to be a throwaway boss, so fighting him here is payoff. He’s the representation of all of the frustrations the player has developed up to this point, and if we’ve delivered our story properly, we blame him for the rogue mage’s reticence to join our cause, rather than the rogue mage herself.

First off, if we haven’t already found something else for our rogue mage companion to do while we fight the boss, now’s a really good time. Unless we have truly top-notch companion AI, the complexity of a satisfying boss fight is going to clash badly with our rogue mage friend. However, one of the “alternative” things she can do is play a support role throughout the fight, either setting up traps for the boss or helping sustain the player through the fight. It’s a great way to showcase her abilities but not rely on the standard AI packages to control her. It adds a lot of complexity to the fight, though, as you’re now working to set up two entities (or more, if there are gang members) in sync. This will be the other major endeavor of the sequence, and will require a lot of fine-tuning to get right.

This is where testers are your best friends. You need people who aren’t you playing your boss fights, so that you can tell if they can figure them out and win. It’s trivially easy to make a boss fight players can’t win– it’s much harder to make one that they think they can’t win at first but actually can and do. It’s similar for me to GMing a tabletop game– you can kill your players easily in a tabletop RPG (“rocks fall, everyone dies”); the greater challenge is pushing them right to the brink but not quite over, unless they themselves slip and fall.

The specifics of scripting this sort of boss fight will differ with every game engine, but essentially I find it useful to script the boss in phases, getting each section of the fight working independently, whether that’s individual abilities or entire JRPG-style boss phases (or both, for sufficiently complicated bosses).

Having defeated the boss, there’s almost certainly going to be a brief payoff victory scene, which may wind up being expensive on the animation/FX/audio side, but is going to be fairly simple (or, at least, simpler than the previous poignant transition scene) on the design side.

After this scene, there’s a temptation to drop the players somewhere more useful than “right over the boss’ body”. I tend to think this isn’t a good idea unless there’s a really good story reason for it (at which point, the aforementioned post-boss scene is going to be a lot more complicated). I find that it makes the whole sequence feel better if you can run around in the area you just conquered to get a last look at it on your own terms before shuttling off to the next area. Sometimes this isn’t possible, and that’s fine, but whenever you can I think it’s a good idea to offer that in-world breather in a space where the player isn’t taking in new, potentially dangerous surroundings. If you do shuttle players off immediately, it’s a good idea to return them to a hub, or some familiar location: that moment of in-control calm to let your mind catch up with your reflexes is a very useful add.

With a few moments to look over the burned building, the defeated opponent, and our new rogue mage ally, we then take our own action to move forward and onto the next part of the story, like actively turning the page.

This whole sequence has a few notable Moments. The transition from Act 1 to Act 2, fleeing the burning building, the boss fight, and the final denoument are all Moments. This whole sequence probably takes about 20-30 minutes, depending on the size and complexity of the encounters, and has roughly four Moments, sections that players will remember.

A shorthand for it is this: Will players either put the scene on youtube or talk about it with their friends? If so, that’s a Moment, and you should make sure you’re pacing them appropriately. I mention the Act structure because it’s a very good fallback when you’re juggling a large number of things; it’s easy to lose your sense of pacing when you’re in the nuts and bolts of why an NPC won’t stand quite right during her dramatic monologue.

I hope this series has been fun or interesting to read. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments, I’ll see what I can do about answering them.


For all of my reader, wanted to make a quick post to apologize for the dearth of updates.

I’m moving cross-country, so I haven’t had time to get situated and get posts done. I’m hoping to return to a regular schedule come the new year, though there may be some posts before then.


How I Design: The Message (Part 5)

I’ve talked thus far about the Medium, tailoring your experience to use the strengths of the medium it’s being presented in, rather than wasting effort and fidelity to struggle against your own presentation medium. A movie that tries to actively engage the audience tends to fall flat, whereas a stage production that ignores the audience entirely from curtain up to curtain drop is missing out on a strength of theatre as a medium. Mostly straightforward, hopefully.

Here, I’d like to talk about another important meta-concept for an experience: the Message. At a really high level, all entertainment is communication, and much like talking to someone, simply using fancy words or complex sentence structure or dramatic tone without any substance simply makes the audience confused at best. I find it very important to be aware of what I’m communicating, and how that message is coming through at any given point in the experience.

This isn’t necessarily about a moral, or a political statement, or any larger concept, although it can be. More often it’s about something much simpler — “this guy is the bad guy”, “this landscape is beautiful”, “this city is corrupt”. Often, there are several messages occurring simultaneously, and balancing them is important. You’ll occasionally see stories where the overarching “world is ending” plot is so overwhelming that it devours any other side-story that might occur, making those seem trivial. Alternately, when faced with a world-ending crisis, investigating a couple of people having a clandestine tryst seems trivial and unbelievable. Scale and pacing are important.

I like to establish messages on the Chapter and Moment levels, figuring out what (usually more complex thing) a Chapter is saying, and peppering Moments with simpler, more direct messages.

As an example, returning to the modern-supernatural mage gangs concept, and the Chapter I described, I might have messages that look something like this:

“There is a significant divide between trained, ‘official’ mages and the unlicensed hedge mages that make up mage gangs.”

“In the world of mage gangs, power is everything, and the power structure is volatile and prone to disruption.”

“Mage gang members tend to resent ‘official’ mages because their world revolves around power and is volatile, and the comparatively high power of trained mages to their untrained magic puts them at a severe disadvantage (and the rejection of their power-based structure by more powerful mages is akin to a rejection of their worldview).”

“Nonmagical people have a variety of effective means to deal with unlicensed, potentially dangerous untrained mages, which the mage-gangs have become more or less adept at avoiding but which remain a constant issue.”

At the Chapter level, these are fairly complex statements, which a variety of resources would be bent towards communicating. In some cases, actual NPC dialogue might communicate these, and the twists in the story and behavior of the opponents/environment might reinforce it. Others might simply be hinted at, if they’re not plot-centric, and left for the player to consider and discover on their own.

I’ll talk about Moments next, and the next in this series will talk primarily about crafting Moments, and the messages are an important part of them. The Moment I’d like to make is the point at which the player catches up to their target, the former licensed mage, gone rogue, who has thrown in with the mage-gangs. There are a variety of things I want to have communicated by this point:

“The rogue mage is highly dangerous and seemingly unpredictable.”

“The rogue mage’s gang is very powerful, but not the most powerful.”

“The rogue mage’s gang is the most organized of the powerful gangs, reflecting her background.”

The Moment relies on these messages being communicated properly, and understood by the player. In the moment, I want to communicate a few important details:

“The rogue mage is powerful and well-equipped, but desperate in the face of the opposing gang.”

“The rogue mage is reasonable, can be negotiated with, and has sensible motivations, but is entirely uncompromising on certain key points.”

“The rogue mage is very attached to Atlanta and is defending it from a greater danger that won’t be addressed by official channels.”

I’ll return to the Moment next time, and actually walk through constructing it, using everything I’ve set up thus far.

Feedback Loops and Class Design

A little break from the How I Design series.

I had a conversation with a friend recently who had a hard time understanding the difference between different classes in MMOs, and why some people so heavily favored one class over another when they appeared to be very similar.

He’d played the Gladiator in FFXIV and found it interminably boring, and asked if anyone liked “pressing 1, 2, 3 over and over again”. The answer, “yes”, baffled him, and I think convinced him that MMOs weren’t for him, though I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

In an MMO, specifically the ‘traditional hotbar’ MMO, there’s generally a bit more nuance then “press buttons in order” or “hit all the buttons whenever they’re available”. Most of the time, any classes that use those mechanics exclusively are considered extremely boring. The concept boils down to the class’ feedback loop, or the thing you’re doing when fighting in order to win.

There are a few different types of feedback loops that are popular in MMOs:

The Availability System

This is the oldest MMO class design, and is the simplest. It’s often criticized as “all MMO classes”, although it’s notable that very few such classes exist in modern Western MMOs.

Availability System classes have a variety of abilities that take a certain amount of time to become available after using, called “cooldown” time. A pure Availability System class will press every button as it becomes available, and cooldowns will determine how often they’re available. No secondary resource is required, because time is the only resource used. A common twist on this concept is a passive ability that refreshes a cooldown whenever certain criteria are met, such as a critical hit refreshing a powerful attack. It raises the skill cap of the system slightly, but this is still a fairly old, little-used design concept.

These have fallen mostly out of favor (largely due to the low skill cap), though players will occasionally opt into classes like this when ability systems allow a lot of customization.

The Rotation System

An evolution of the Availability System, a rotation-based class generally has fewer cooldown abilities and usually has a secondary resource. These classes can use abilities far more frequently, but there tends to be an efficient order that is repeated. Skill in this system is determined by completing the rotation in a timely, efficient manner and not losing opportunities to continue the rotation.

A common added feature of rotation-based classes are what are known as “off-GCD” abilities. Essentially, there is a mechanic called the Global Cooldown, abbreviated GCD, that is the minimum amount of time between actions. It exists essentially to prevent key spamming as a successful strategy and maintain the desired pace of combat. An ability that’s not bound by the GCD can be used between other abilities, allowing quick reactions even if the standard abilities are still unusable. Abilities like interrupts are often like this, or certain temporary power boosts. Juggling these in between standard abilities allows a perceptive player with quick reactions a higher skill ceiling.

The Priority System

Priority systems have mostly been relegated to healing classes until recently, but they have had increasing popularity among other class roles in the last few years. The general concept is that for a priority system class to achieve maximum effectiveness, it needs to use abilities both proactively and reactively, so that whichever ability is needed at any given moment is based on the current situation. Generally speaking, this revolves around either maintaining self-buffs, applying and maintaining layers of debuffs on a target, or using/consuming said buffs for a power spike.

Early concepts of the priority system were the purely reactive healing, where there is no set “rotation” and the unpredictability of encounters means that a cooldown-based availability system is less functional. The spell needed by the healer was then applied to the situation at hand, on the fly. This has bled into other class roles, most often tank classes but occasionally damage classes as well.

These sorts of systems tend to be less complex but require more situational awareness, in the case of damage classes often reducing the risk of tunnel vision that rotation-based classes often have.

Feedback Loops

Each one of these types of systems have a built-in feedback loop that appeals to a different sort of player. Rotation systems are favored by players who enjoy memorizing a pattern and then executing it with precision. Availability systems are favored by players who enjoy having a broad selection of abilities to use, and don’t like hitting the same buttons repeatedly. Priority systems are favored by players who are less interested in memorizing patterns and prefer to react to the moment.

For any game featuring classes, where the core gameplay requires a lot of one or a small number of verbs (usually, “fight”), it’s important to develop a functional, fun feedback loop, which requires some understanding of the above systems, or any new system that’s devised.

Without a core feedback loop that works, your class won’t be interesting moment to moment, and while you may have larger systems that make your game fun on a macro scale even if the basic gameplay loop isn’t interesting (EvE Online is a very good example of this), it’s important that this design choice is a conscious one.

How I Design: The Medium (Part 4)

I’ve talked about Worldbuilding, the Chapter, and the Moment, the last of which I’ve got more to say about, but I want to talk about the other end of the bridge a bit first, for context. The Moment is really important, it’s what gets built every day and what you play and remember, so building a complete moment, that center point of the bridge, requires building from both ends.


If Worldbuilding is the big idea about the setting and the fantasy, the experience, the extreme other end is the medium itself. The other end of the bridge takes a big fantasy and breaks it down into smaller and smaller chunks, this end of the bridge looks at a big task and breaks it down into smaller and smaller chunks. The biggest chunk here is what I call the Medium.


Like Worldbuilding, the Medium is a big, equally important concept that says a lot of important things about the experience. The Medium is quite simple– how is the experience going to make its way to the audience? In what way am I going to deliver the content I’m going to make? What are the strengths and weaknesses of that choice?


Different media are good at different things. Video games are great at delivering a personalized, interacive experience, but they necessarily sacrifice some elegance of storytelling, pacing, and cinematography in order to allow control and choice on the part of the audience. Without incredible advances in technology (and possibly not even then), you won’t be able to say the exact words you’re thinking to an NPC in an RPG, or be able to lean around a corner to blind-fire a gun in the exact way you’re envisioning. A game has to put a veneer over that limitation and convince you that no, it’s okay that you can’t quite do that because either the line you’re going to see delivered is better than the one you thought of, or the tactic you wanted to use isn’t as effective as the one you can use, already built into the game.


Similarly, a movie is great at delivering drama and a crafted cinema experience, but isn’t very good at answering “what if”, and isn’t going to change much on the second, third, fourth, or fifth watching. A novel lets you get into the characters’ thoughts a bit more, but you rely on the imagination of the reader to fill in the visual gaps left by pure text.


Even subsets of a medium can have important distinctions. A fast-paced action game has to be a bit lighter on the deep, forward-thinking strategy, because juggling moment-to-moment demands and difficult strategy simultaneously can quickly become stressful and not fun. A fully-voiced, story-heavy game is less likely to have total freedom to roam and do outlandish things (or heavily compartmentalize those two things). A masterful experience knows the limitations and strengths of its medium and plays to them, rather than trying to shoehorn in features that simply don’t work as well– particularly if there isn’t a solid plan for making those features fit within the game. Consider Skyrim vs Call of Duty. Call of Duty delivers voiced lines on the fly, with no interactive options for the player, because there’s generally first-person action happening the whole time. Skyrim is also first-person with a lot of action, but dialogue with NPCs pauses the entire game world for you to speak with them, allowing you time to listen and make choices. If the game didn’t pause and accommodate that feature, the experience would quickly become unplayably chaotic as you desperately try to make important dialogue choices with some buttons while shooting arrows into a dragon and eluding pursuing guards with others (to say nothing of contextual buttons, which are necessary for complex games).


I spend a lot of time thinking about what works well in the medium, or even with the specific mechanics I’m working with. Any story I tell or feature I include needs to fit within the medium, and some things just don’t flow well over certain media compared to others. It’s important to me to know what I can do well, and really push those things as standout features of my experience.

How I Design: The Moment (Part 3)

I’ve talked about Worldbuilding and the Chapter, and we’re drilling down into the fine details. I mentioned that my process operates from both ends, and this is the central point. I wanted to drill down from top to bottom first, before I explain how all the pieces become my process.

Experiences are made up of moments. A moment is a flash, a single fragment of an event. It’s a witty bit of repartee, a dramatic line, or a masterful bass drop. It’s the thirty seconds or so it takes to walk up and pick up the Master Sword at the end of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.

Movie trailers are made up of moments. If you feel like you’ve seen an entire movie after having watched the trailer, it’s likely because the moments selected to show off in the trailer give you all the context you need.

Sometimes a moment is external to the production, but still part of the experience. While the statue of limitations is up on Bioshock, I’m still going to be oblique. If you’ve played the game, you know what I’m talking about here. For everyone else, this paragraph should be spoiler-free. There’s no particular *moment* in Bioshock, if you actually look at events that unfold, but nearly everyone who’s played it remembers a moment, that moment where all of the context they’ve been presented at that point crystallizes into something that makes sense. It’s powerful, and part of the expert craftsmanship of that game is that the moment can occur at different times for different people, and the game allows it. For some, Bioshock’s moment is revealed a few moments prior to the confrontation, and the confrontation is merely confirmation. Either way, the moment is equally powerful.

The key to a successful Moment is context. I differentiate the capital M this way: an experience is made up of moments, but a Moment is the one you remember. The battles against orcs in the Mines of Moria are moments, but Gandalf falling to the Balrog is a Moment.

Let me go back to the Master Sword example, in A Link to the Past. Here’s a video (main part starts at about 45 seconds):

You’ve spent some time collecting amulets from dungeons, then you’ve worked your way through a haunted forest in order to reach the Master Sword, which you need in order to break a magic barrier preventing you from reaching Princess Zelda, after you took up your uncle’s sword to stop an evil wizard. Drawing the Master Sword is a key moment of the story, and it’s what you’ve probably spent hours working up to. The game shows you the barrier straightaway, and it will zap you if you get too close. The amulets all have dungeons, with bosses, and the events leading you to collect them all involve their own Moments, whether those are the boss fights, the brief transition into the Dark World, or discovering new, exciting items. The Master Sword has been set up as a key item in the game, and collecting it is, appropriately, a Moment.

You’ve made your way through the Lost Woods, the haunted forest full of baddies, dealing with the maze and some annoying and dangerous enemies. Note the swooping raven-bird that attacks the player partway through the video. It takes a hit, but keeps on coming. We’ll get back to that later.

When Link enters the last section of forest, with the Master Sword, it’s a haunted section of forest, but unlike the rest, it’s full of forest creatures that run around as you approach, unlike anything else in the game thus far. It’s different, and marks that this section is special, somehow. When Link approaches the Master Sword, it’s on a fantastic pedestal, with an inscription that can be read if the player so desires. When Link steps up to take the sword, it’s not a simple “open chest, get item” moment, the amulets float around him, then grant him the power to draw it as the music rises. With a flash, the sword is drawn, it glows with power, and the Lost Woods goes from being haunted and misty to bright and green, which lasts for the rest of the game. While simple, it’s a powerful Moment that sticks with you.

The Master Sword scene is a giant payoff for the entire first section of the game. It’s a Moment an and of itself, but the game continues to emphasize the Master Sword as important for quite some time. First, extremely notably, Link gets the ability to shoot spinning blade beams from it while at full health, and the sword hits harder– those birds that were so annoying in the previous forest section now only take one hit. The payoff is immediate and lasting, and more than simply a neat scene that doesn’t alter gameplay.

I’ll talk more later about building a Moment, and talk about the kinds of things I’d look at building for the setting and chapter I spoke about previously, but this has gone on a bit long. More next time!

Player Fantasy, Again (or, why I’m level 20 on my Ninja in FFXIV in just a few hours)

Taking a break from the “How I Design” series to talk a bit about today’s FFXIV patch, which introduced the Rogue/Ninja.

I’ve talked about how important player fantasy is before. It’s neat seeing it have an effect on me in action.

Today, the Rogue/Ninja class dropped in FFXIV. I got up about four hours early so I could spend as much of the day as possible (that wasn’t already booked with work) playing it. It’s exciting for me, and it’s been a blast.

In the meantime, my pugilist is stalled out and my lancer is barely level 5. You’d think, looking at my class list, that I just don’t like physical DPS classes. What’s the difference? Let’s rule out some stuff, first.

There’s an argument to be made for the “new” factor, which plays a role, but honestly stuff like the lancer and pugilist are new to me also and I haven’t delved into them.

The ninja’s abilities are pretty standard fare. I have a 1-2 combo, which will presumably become 1-2-3 at some point, much like the paladin I already have and both the lancer and pugilist. This is the bread and butter of my class thus far, and it lacks the buff-stacking dance that I find interesting about the pugilist. I’ve got an additional DoT, just like the monk, and a toggle “poison” stance, that gives me a (relatively boring) 5% damage increase. I’ve got an execute ability, for targets low on health, and a ranged knife throw. As far as bread and butter goes, nothing terribly fancy or even different from what I’ve played already (or could have been playing for months).

The ninja’s secondary, “utility” abilities are slightly different. I have a “dodge next incoming physical attack” button, on a fairly long cooldown, that’s mildly interesting. I have Mug, which is probably the most interesting skill thus far, that causes a mob to yield additional loot if I score a killing blow with it. Interesting, but the health-regen version that lancers get is more useful and gives me the same skill-reward feeling. Stealth makes for some neat quests, but I honestly never cast it outside of the required quest situations; there are no stealth-specific abilities that I’ve seen thus far.

So, why have I spent the entire time playing it, putting it well ahead of extremely similar classes that I could have been playing since launch?

Animations. I love them. Finesse weapons, not a great big spear or blocky fist weapons. The whole roguey aesthetic, from the stances to the ability concepts to the questline. The stuff that the ninja gets to do later, with elemental attacks, I get my mage-assassin!

It’s totally fluff, but it makes a huge difference. A bit of an aside, but it’s striking to me how much of a difference player fantasy makes in giving me something I want to play.

A Parable

Someone was killed at a dinner party, one of the hosts, the body left draped over the dining room table.

As one might expect, the guests at the party erupted in chaos. Everyone had different thoughts. Other hosts worried that they might be next, and worried amongst themselves that there was a danger at the dinner party, but there was a mess to clean up and they set to it. Many of the guests had seen this sort of thing before, and set to blaming each other. This quickly became arguments with acrimonious accusations, and the guests took sides, locking themselves in different rooms. Some of the hosts, and some of the assistants tried to make sense of what was happening. One group of guests expressed their worry that one of them would be the next on the table, and the other eyed everyone else suspiciously– perhaps that other group of guests staged the body! Perhaps it’s not really a body! Look at how the assistants carry their serving trays, there’s something suspicious there! The hosts and their assistants have been planning this!

The arguments ran through the night, and in the night, knives were found embedded in the doors and walls. Someone put them there, and each side was convinced it was the other. The suspicious group of guests, already suspecting foul play, ignored their knives. The worried guests took it as a threat.

The neighbors heard the commotion and looked inside, seeing the situation through windows. A suspicious group of guests behind locked doors, a worried group of guests eventually unlocking their door and working with the hosts and the assistants to make sense of the mess. These neighbors took pictures of what they saw, the knives in the walls, all the noise and anger, trying to make sense of the chaos. Eventually the neighbors knocked on the door to sort things out.

They asked everyone what had happened:

Some hosts spoke up, though many were still worried that they could be next, and everyone was working to clean up the mess.

Some assistants spoke up, wondering aloud whether the dinner parties were such a good idea after all.

Many of the worried guests spoke up in their own defense; others, fearful for their safety, stayed silent.

Many of the suspicious guests shouted through their locked door at the rest, accusing the assistants of trying to ruin the fun of dinner parties, accusing the worried guests of being too concerned, accusing the hosts of being tacitly involved in everything.

The neighbors, hearing all of this, wondered if the suspicious guests were responsible somehow, and their doubts drove the suspicious guests into a frenzy, accusing even the neighbors of being in on the plot.

I’m not sure how this one ends. The suspicious guests are still locked in their room, shouting at those outside who are still trying to make sense of the mess. Very few people’s hands are clean, and they’re mostly the ones who weren’t paying attention.

Meanwhile, two houses down, no one has any idea that any of this is happening, except that they heard THEIR neighbors talking about something wrong. A street over, it’s business as usual, no one the wiser until a thrown knife shatters a random window, surprising everyone inside, who comes to see what happened and sees a house in chaos.

If you find out how it ends, let me know.

Disaffection, the Fashion

I miss when it was cool to like things.

For the last decade or so, probably a little bit more, what’s cool has been talking about how disaffected you are. This thing you’ve got is okay, you guess, but it’s not as cool as this other, older thing.  Games have become worse and worse as time goes on, entertainment is “dumbed down” for the masses, and nothing is any good anymore.

It bugs me. We delivered the Internet into a world where disaffection, detachment, and disinterest are in vogue, and it dominates the dialogue. Someone reading this is thinking “he must think he’s sooo clever with that alliteration in the last sentence”. Finding joy is vulnerability, it’s a place where They, the vague, ill-defined, but omnipresent They, can hit you.

Don’t believe me? Try this:

Pick a forum, any forum. Let’s go with games. Pick a game you love, and talk about how much you love it. Within the first page of comments, I’d bet the first ten or so, you get a response that’s “[your game] sucks”. Pick something you love: a game, a story, a movie, any topic. Post in a forum on the internet about why you like it and you’ll be told within a few responses why you’re wrong, and probably also why you’re stupid.

No one is surprised by this. “It’s the Internet”, is the common response, as if that were reason enough. The Internet is made up of people, and it’s a reflection of our culture. Have we really forgotten how to like things? How much fun it is to share the joy with other people?

Initially, I figured this was a sign of me growing old and crotchety, something that a few of my readers will probably chuckle at. So, I looked for some data. Here are some commercials from the 90s. Some Super Bowl ones for about 20 years, too. Here’s some 1995 Super Bowl ads. Why Super Bowl ads? Because they’re some of the most relevant (and expensive) ads on TV at any given time in the US. They’re a really big deal, and in order to be relevant they need to be on top of the cultural pulse– usually Super Bowl ads dictate the next year’s advertising trends in one way or another. Why ads? They’re meant to appeal to people, they’re painstakingly crafted to strike a chord with their audience, and there’s money in accomplishing that, so you know they’re trying.

Note the 1995 one, at about 3:00. The Chili’s ad is one of the first I saw watching several years of ads that’s directly mocking. Especially look at the Snickers ads. Now here’s one from the very next year. Much meaner than the enthusiastic older ones, and the first time we see the still relevant “not going anywhere for a while?” slogan. Interesting, that clever meanness lasts so long.

We picked up our trend for disaffection in the grungy 90s, and it’s lasted for 20 years now. We’ve got our Super Bowl cultural breakout commercial in 1995, the start of our spate of meanness. We’ve got our Super Bowl commercials pushing the envelope, trying to wiggle into a new cultural niche and do things people don’t expect. Shock value.

So, here’s 2014. Here’s some more context. Outside of that one ‘breakout’ heartfelt commercial, that interestingly wouldn’t have been at all out of place in 1990, we’ve got a bunch of dark, serious adventuresome car ads and some mocking “funny” ads. Lest you think that it’s not possible to be funny without mockery, note the wacky ads in the 80’s and even the early 90s. As an aside, I think it’s interesting that car ads tend not to change much over the whole 40-year spread I looked at, with a very small number of exceptions.

Super Bowl ads are a microcosm of the overall advertising sphere, but I’d venture a guess that most ads fit the same broad categories– mock something for a cheap laugh, sell product. It’s what we’ve been tuned to respond to for the last 20 years. Don’t talk about what’s good, talk about why other things are bad, and suggest that you’re better.

I look forward to the next cultural revolution, when it’s cool to like things again. We’re starting to get there, I think, as people get tired of the disaffectation and disinterest. I worry that we’ll have a lot of people who have forgotten how to legitimately enjoy themselves, or are incapable of adequately expressing it when they are. I sometimes worry that we’re already there, that people are doing things that they dislike because they don’t know how to do things they like anymore, and have latched onto the things they think they’re supposed to like, or once liked.

I hope I get to see people legitimately enjoying themselves, and not getting cheap kicks from putting others down. We’re emerging from a culture of disaffectation and disinterest to a culture that values passion and genuine interest, but we haven’t realigned our focus from putting down the things we dislike or disagree with back to the things we love and cherish. We focus on the negative, show our passion by vehemently disagreeing and fighting back against the things we disagree with, as if someone liking something we don’t is a crisis that we must rectify. I feel like it’s that culture that escalates to death threats and harassment, when it gets out of hand.

I’d love to see what happens when that turns into creative energy, or something positive. Maybe that’s a naive hope.

Rambly today, apologies.