List-Building in Infinity: ITS Tournament Style

**I wrote this a bit back on the Infinity forums, and some people found it useful, so I figured I’d preserve it here. If you don’t play Infinity, the listbuilding software is here and the rules are here, if you’re interested!**

Tam’s Tactica: ITS Listbuilding

I’m not the highest ranked player out there, but I do play every faction but one (sorry, CA players, but I’ve been reading through the CA army list for the purposes of this writeup) and have brought all of them except Ariadna to multiple tournaments at various times.

I view listbuilding as two broad categories: ITS listbuilding and non-ITS listbuilding. I make this separation because there’s a vastly different approach to successful listbuilding that occurs in an ITS scenario setting than in other types of formats, mainly centering around specialists. ITS also uses a two-list format, which can significantly affect listbuilding, which I want to address here.

Without further ado:

Listbuilding for ITS

I start every list I make with a basic checklist. If a list I create doesn’t check all the boxes, it’s doesn’t make the cut. Here’s the checklist:

1.) Do I have enough orders? Orders are gold, and vitally important, I want at least 10 in every 300pt list.

2.) Do I have enough specialists? Specialists win games, and a really strong ITS strategy is assassinating enemy specialists so that they can’t score points even if they table you. I want enough that if the opponent scalpels out a couple, I’m not out of luck. Generally, I like about 40% of the models in my list to be specialists. I’ll get to why that is later.

2a.) Do I have the RIGHT specialists? There are a lot of secret objectives, and relying on the HVT isn’t a good plan, because if your opponent can tell immediately that that’s your only good option for scoring secret objectives, they can make it difficult for you to accomplish that. Having a spread of possible options here is important.

3.) Do I have fewer points remaining than the cheapest model in my chosen army/sectorial? This is a question that comes down to efficiency. If I can still take the cheapest model possible, I should, even if that’s a lone irregular troop in its own combat group. If I can’t, but still have those points remaining, I’ve probably spent points inefficiently somewhere else and should reevaluate.

4.) Do I have answers to basic questions my opponent’s list might have? “Questions” are things like “how do I handle camo?”, “how do I handle an emplaced Total Reaction HMG?”, “how do I handle a TAG”, etc. Not every one of these need to be answered in a single list, because you get two in ITS, but it’s something to think about.

5.) Does this list have a plan for when it’s winning AND losing? A super-rambo list with a killer TAG and a super HI hacker and a bunch of mostly-useless cheerleaders will look amazing when it’s winning, but if you lose that TAG and HI in an unlucky firefight, the rest of your list looks sad. Similarly, a brick-breaking linkteam is awesome until the link leader gets Isolated and the link breaks, at which point you have to figure out what to do. A good way to tell is to choose two models at random to remove from the list and see if it can still score points. If the answer is “yes, but only if it’s not one or both of these models”, you’ve put too many eggs in one basket.

6.) Is it a legal list? This really goes without saying, but it’s got to have a Lt, has to be within SWC limits, etc.

These are the basic seven things I check for when looking to see if a list can succeed.

Success in ITS, for most scenarios, has very little to do with shooting your opponent. It is possible, albeit unlikely, to score full points in every mission except Annihilation without ever shooting anyone. This is a really important thing to keep in mind when building ITS missions. I’ve played games where I’ve literally been in retreat with a single surviving model, having not even wounded a single one of my opponent’s force, and won 10-2. In ITS, there are models that can shoot people really well, and there are models that win you the game, and they’re rarely the same.

I divide up the sections of my list very broadly, into four categories: Specialists, Offense, Tricks, and Support. I’ll go into each of them below.

First, Specialists.

Specialists are the most important part of your list. A lot of people will throw them in as an afterthought, adding them once they have their “core”. For me, specialists ARE the core; they’re what is winning you the game. If it were just you on the table for a scenario, 100% of your orders would be spent on specialists and you’d score all of the points. The only reason to spend orders on non-specialists is to remove obstacles in the specialists’ way without risking them. Specialists are the core, supported by everything else you’re bringing.

As mentioned above, I like about 40% of the models in my list to be specialists. This isn’t to say I want 40% of the points of my list to be spent on specialists, just that for every 10 models, I want 4 specialists, more or less. If I can get more, great, but I don’t push it. 3 is, for me, a bare minimum, and I’ve made lists that have 8 or 9 out of 10 models as specialists. The reason for this is threat saturation. That single rambo list I mentioned above? It paints a huge target on the rambo. Instead, if I have four slightly less deadly models, it forces my opponent to either ignore those threats or diffuse any offense across all four, increasing their chances of success. The more specialists you have, the more opportunities you have to win even through losses.

I also like efficiency in my specialists. I don’t want to have to run a single 4-2 model all over the table to score points. Like many, I favor infiltrating camo specialists, but not exclusively. A few things that get my attention when I’m looking at a specialist model:

–Does it infiltrate? This gets me up the board fast, scoring points with a minimum of orders spent.

–Is it well protected? Camo and HI specialists win big here, I want my specialists to live. Smoke is great if I can get it, because it means I can press buttons on consoles in peace.

–Is it fast? 4-4 is a minimum, unless it infiltrates. 6-4 is better. 8-6 is amazing.

–Is it efficient? I want to be getting a specialist that can do what I need it to without breaking the bank in terms of points, SWC, etc.

–Can it do other things? Hackers and Doctors win big here. Others provide link bonuses. Some lay mines, have Sensor, occasionally have a heavy weapon, and so on.

Many of the best specialists fulfill several of the above– an infiltrating camo hacker offers a lot of tools in a single package, and enables useful REMs. Sensor Remotes are fast, can reveal camo, and can score CPs. AD Hackers can sit safely off the table and drop right where I need them. The perfect specialist would be a TO Camo Infiltrating 2W HI on a motorcycle with an anti-materiel weapon, zero-V smoke, Minelayer, and D-Charges (and would obviously cost 100+ points and never happen). Knowing what makes a specialist good at their job, though, allows you to better pick from the specialists you have available.

In general, my priority when looking at specialists is Hacker/FO, Doctor, Chain of Command, Engineer, Specialist Troop, Paramedic. Hackers are versatile, FO is cheap and adds Flash Pulse, Doctors give me longevity, Chain of Command is highly valuable, Engineer is useful but specific, Specialist Troop is extremely cheap and no-frills but rare, and Paramedic generally feels overpriced compared to FO.

Once you have the Specialists, it’s time to think about the Support.

Support is what lets your specialists do their work. Often, this means they provide orders. Other times, they add smoke, help protect your specialists, or otherwise do their (often passive) part in securing your victory.

My approach to building a list for an unfamiliar faction (let’s do CA, since I never have!) is to look through the army list for the best specialists I can find (for CA, I like the Med-Tech Obsidon Medchanoid, the Charontid Hacker, the Malignos Observer or Hacker, and the Shrouded Observer or Hacker), then fill the rest of my 10 orders out with the cheapest units I can find, forming the very basic core of my list.

In the CA example, my list thus far looks like this:

Shrouded FO
Shrouded FO
Malignos Hacker
Charontid Hacker
Ikadron Batroid
Ikadron Batroid
Unidron Batroid / Morat Vanguard Infantry / Daturazi


It’s not a great list, but it’s 10 orders and it could win games. I need to make it a legal list, and I’ve got 73 points and 5 SWC for other things, including making my list legal.

I like to have my list be at about 150 points or so once I’ve done this, if I can manage it. The Charontid in the above is pretty expensive, and I took two Shrouded FOs, so I’m a lot higher than I’d generally like. We may need to drop some stuff. The Charontid Hacker, however, can be my Lieutenant, which makes it really attractive. I still only have 8 models that can do anything, and no one has a weapon with long range. Now comes the fun part:

This is where things get fun. I want to replace models in the list I’ve made, one by one, to put some stopping power in my list and support my specialists. What works well here will change dramatically based on your choice of specialists and your particular favored flavor of combat. I like to have heavier weapons to cover every range, and to provide board control.

One of my go-tos is the humble Total Reaction HMG remote. It’s not fancy, but it will severely punish unwary opponents and requires that they put some effort into removing it.

I also really like Minelayers. It’s a cheap way to make sure my opponent can’t get too tricky early on, and forces them to deal with a potentially deadly obstacle. Since a lot of the infiltrating Camo specialists I like will frequently force me to pick between Minelayer and Specialist options, I’ll often bring one of each, sometimes downgrading a specialist in one place (Shrouded FO becomes Minelayer) and upgrading something else (Unidron Batroid becomes FO).

Backing things up with an HI with a decent gun is a good way to finalize things, or if I have a particularly aggressive force, a TO sniper or something that can take out a TAG (Noctifer with Spitfire or Missile Launcher does the trick here, or a Suryat or Sogarat with HMG).

Once I have a solid grasp of how I will remove problem targets, I want to hit the last point:


Tricks are how I give my opponents fits. It’s the Smart Missile Launcher in an otherwise innocuous Nomad list, that suddenly makes all of those hackers and repeaters a serious problem. It’s the smoke-dropping Myrmidon that turns a Sophotect from a backline healer to a fast, highly effective objective stealer. It’s the question you ask if an opponent can handle and punish them severely if they can’t. Not every faction or list has these, but they’re nice if you can fit them in.

In this case, we’re going to go with a really simple question: Can you deal with an Impersonator? Here’s the list, after substitutions:

Shrouded Minelayer
Shrouded FO
Malignos Hacker
Charontid Hacker Lt
Imetron (AI Beacon)
Unidron Batroid FO
Q-Drone (TR HMG)
Noctifer Missile Launcher
Speculo Killer


It’s a pretty solid list, overall, with 5 specialists covering four different types, some TAG-removal power, some board control, a very nasty Impersonator to tie up my opponent, and a lot of camo. It’s got a glaring weakness to enemy camo, since there are no visors in the list, and I’d really like the Med-Tech to have a helper. Even so, I’d probably run this list as-is.

This is the stage of listbuilding where I start tweaking. I only need one point to give the Med-Tech a helper, and I can easily get that point by dropping FO from either the Shrouded or the Unidron. This will bring me down to 4 specialists but will give my doctor/engineer a lot of flexibility. I’ll drop it from the Unidron, because it’s less likely to be in a good position, and get myself a helper for the doctor/engineer. I may find myself with enough points to nab another Imetron for orders, or an entire new unit, pushing me to 11 orders. In that case, I’d put the Q-Drone in Group 2, as the only model, allowing me to use its one order to reposition as needed but otherwise sitting and taking AROs, as it should, while not draining my primary order pool if it gets destroyed.

The lack of visors is kind of concerning, and if it really worries me I can replace the Noctifer with something that has a visor, either a Spitfire Yaogat or finding somewhere to free up a point for a Maakrep HMG. It’s not necessarily a huge concern, though, because I still have the second list.

The Second List

So, I’ve got one list, but this is ITS, which allows me to bring two. This is a thing I should always do.

I’m going to build the second list in the same kind of way as the first, but I want to focus on shoring up the weaknesses of the first list, and not being overly redundant with its strengths. This is also where I want to start looking at the scenarios and determining which my first list is good at and which it isn’t.

Looking at the first list:


-No MSV, weak against camo
-Very little weight of fire
-Reliance on infiltrating camo specialists


-Very strong specialists

For my second list, I want to start with those weaknesses. First, lack of visors. I really want a visor or two in the list, but there are relatively few options for me. I can take a Maakrep Tracker, a Yaogat, certain Charontid options, and Ko Dali. I also want greater weight of fire– more shots. That makes the Maakrep HMG and the Charontid HMG look pretty nice, as well as Ko Dali. Ko Dali also has D-Charges, which I can use to accomplish objectives. Charontid HMG Lt and Ko Dali it is.

I still need specialists in this list, and I want to be prepared in case my approach of infiltrating camo doesn’t work. I also want a hacker in here, for access to cheap troops. The Shrouded are still very nice and very useful, and the Zerat offers a nice cheap infiltrating hacker option, also allowing me to get more cheap troops. One Shrouded FO, one Zerat hacker.

Now I fill out my order pool. Four Unidron Batroid FOs, two Daturazi. The Daturazi offer me some fun smoke tricks with the nice visors I’ve got, and also let me put smoke on objectives to claim them more easily. Impetuous also gives me some more orders to work with on my turn.

I’ve now got a list that’s got a lot of okay specialists, a powerful core, and about 50 points left. I could start upgrading the Batroids to more powerful things, but that’s going to make it fairly similar to my original list, with some things swapped around. I want to ask my opponent some different questions.

Enter cheap warbands. My previous list was a very tight 10 orders of mostly-high-quality troops. This list is already a bunch of cheap troops supporting a couple of powerhouses. I’m going to skew the list even further and start a second combat group, containing an Oznat, two Pretas, a Gaki, and a pair of Imetrons for orders. This group is entirely expendable, and exists to put more smoke on the board and flood my opponent with dangers. Final list:

Group 1:

Ko Dali
Charontid HMG Lt
Zerat Hacker
Shrouded FO
Unidron Batroid FO
Unidron Batroid FO
Unidron Batroid FO
Unidron Batroid FO
Daturazi Chain Rifle
Daturazi Chain Rifle

Group 2:



I don’t use all of my SWC, but I don’t feel like I need to, because that’s not what the list is going for. This list is better for quadrant-control and kill-em-all style missions, just due to the abundance of cheap yet dangerous troops. It also still has 6 specialists (37.5% of troops) and another model that may be able to accomplish some secret objectives quite handily.

These same listbuilding concepts can be applied to any faction– I developed them while building Nomad and Neoterra lists, and before today had never put together a Combined Army list, but I would play either of the above lists reasonably confidently.

As you play lists, I recommend playing them in pairs. Refine one, and then refine the other to suit. You may find that one list with visors and one without doesn’t work for you, and having a more even split of visors is important. You may find that you need more hackers, or more FO, or some other specific thing. You might find that you favor one list over the other so much that you never play the secondary list, at which point you should reevaluate it and potentially scrap it and start over.

I want to close with another listbuilding example, using a sectorial:

ISS Listbuilding Example (with linkteams)

ISS is really strange to build lists with. I don’t have a ton of specialist options, so I have to rely on other things.

I’m still using the same philosophy– I want solid specialists as my core. Instead, however, in ISS I have an interesting option: the Wu Ming FO. It’s already pretty cheap HI, and has 4-4 MOV, but I need it to do something other than “be HI”. Lucky for me, it’s linkable.

Linkteams let me take a specialist and embed them in a team that’s made for offense, combining the two into a single cohesive unit. I’ve found I don’t much care for linkteams in ITS that don’t include at least one specialist. For the purposes of this ITS list, since I’m putting together a Wu Ming linkteam (that’s already going to be expensive), that link is going to be my core:

Wu Ming FO
Wu Ming FO
Wu Ming Boarding Shotgun + Tinbot
Wu Ming HMG
Wu Ming Light Rocket Launcher

Bam, nice combination of weapons, two specialists, and some hacking defense, all trucking around the board. The FOs both help me win and also make the HMG and LRL much nastier.

I’ve got the list’s core, but I still need specialists– two is insufficient. The Wu Ming will have to cross the field, so ideally we’ll use something that doesn’t. Bam, Ninja Hacker, the surprising go-to specialist for Yu Jing sectorials.

I also need a lieutenant, and in this case I want something that can help me leverage that killer linkteam I have. Sun Tze makes the cut.

Whoops, I only have 24 points left. I can still fill out my order pool with a Celestial Guard (with KSCD) and a pair of Kuang Shi.

Final list:

Wu Ming FO
Wu Ming FO
Wu Ming Boarding Shotgun + Tinbot
Wu Ming HMG
Wu Ming Light Rocket Launcher
Sun Tze Lt
Ninja Hacker
Celestial Guard KSCD
Kuang Shi
Kuang Shi

It’s a bit light on specialists, and very focused on the Wu Ming link, but it’s a really nasty link, and it’s easy to overlook Sun Tze as a flanker, not to mention the Kuang Shi pushing forward. I’d need to play it and tweak it, but it’s a list that hits all my points and should work well. I’d play it.

I hope this was valuable for someone, and/or an interesting read.

Facing Fears

Not a lot in this one about games. Sorry. This one’s more for myself.

I spent a long time afraid of dogs. Like, really, really afraid of dogs. I would studiously avoid visiting friends in grade school if I knew they had a dog, and my first thought when visiting a new friend’s place was “I hope they don’t have a dog”. I would freeze up when seeing someone walking their dog on a leash 100m away in a park. It was a problem.

This lasted for about twenty years. Ed, a very good friend of mine, has two dogs who instantly recognized I was terrified of them, and stayed out of my way. Over the course of about nine months, wherein I hung out with Ed because he’s awesome and I didn’t want him realizing I was terrified of dogs (protip: he knew instantly), I got used to his beagle, who could not fathom a world in which a person existed that didn’t want to pet him.

This is River, my puppy. She’s the final stage of me getting over my dog-phobia, and it’s been really successful. She’s one of the first times I’ve faced a fear head-on, and the results have been great.

I’m a relentless planner– I work out what I’m going to do and how I’m going to approach situations almost ridiculously far in advance. Every single day I consider possible options– what if X person wants to do something this evening, what if Y event occurs, what will I do if Z happens? I have contingency plans within contingency plans, and as a result I’ve gotten really good at working out ways to avoid things I don’t want to deal with. Plausible excuses are my bread and butter, and I can hide my own inconvenience well enough that most people don’t notice when I’ve done something stupid like overbook myself.

Actually facing my fears or things I’m uncomfortable with is, as a result, rather difficult for me. It’s intentionally putting myself in a situation where I can’t plan out my reaction. It helps, *a lot*, to have friends willing to help out. Mostly, this means being a wall pressed up against my back to prevent me from backing down.


In the same year I got River, I tackled another fear of mine: needles. I have always had a problem with the idea of something being injected or withdrawn from under my skin. I used to donate blood regularly, and I’d see the needle, see spots, and pass out– this eventually led to them refusing to draw blood.

The answer to that one? A tattoo. I got my friend Jess to accompany me there, a calm, collected person who has an elaborate, impressive tattoo of her own on her back. She was there when I scheduled the appointment and worked her schedule around a bit so that she could come to the parlour with me, so there was no way I could back out. She’s also extremely supportive but has a low tolerance for cowardice, so I knew that I could count on her to be that wall.

End result:

It was done in two sessions, and while I was petrified during the first, I was perfectly fine for the second.

Now I’m working on an MBA, and one of the core classes I’m taking involves team-building at a ropes course– read: a place in which you climb up high places with a team. This is another of those things I’ve studiously avoided in the past– in undergrad, I actually signed up for a class for the sole purpose of creating a schedule conflict so that I had a good excuse not to go to a ropes course.

There’s not really any avoiding this one. Heights have been one of those things that I can avoid, and it’s a relatively recent (since college) fear of mine. It’s not hard to simply not go to high places… except now I’ve got a ropes course I can’t avoid. It would be easy for me to let the fear take control and just sit out of any events I don’t feel comfortable with– while I have to attend, the class syllabus specifically mentions (multiple times!) that while attendance is mandatory, participation isn’t.

Except, the whole point is to bond with my class– my cohort, who I’ll be with for most if not all of my core classes for this degree. Team-building is a skill, and it’s one I’m supposed to be developing. I’m bad with trusting people; I prefer to do the work myself and fully own both my successes and failures without worrying about whether or not I’m taking responsibility for someone else. When I do delegate, it’s because I’ve already come up with a contingency plan in which I swoop in and do the rest of the work myself.

My classmates are understanding, and I haven’t known them very long. I suspect they’re unlikely to care one way or another if someone they’ve only known for a few hours (two class sessions thus far) separates himself due to fear. It would be easy to plan a way to back out, but today we did trust-building exercises. Really simple stuff, the standard trust fall, that staple of team-building that often gets mocked. There was also the lift, like a trust fall except in a group, and when you’re at about 60 degrees, a few people pick your feet off the ground and then the whole group lifts you above their heads. This is enough to trip my fear of heights– I’m up high enough to hurt myself if I fall, unsupported by anything except a bunch of people’s hands, many of whom are smaller than I am.

But it was fine, I came out unscathed, and given my track record at facing fears head-on, I figure this is another one I can take on rather than hiding from. Now I’ve written it all down; I can’t back out now. Whoever’s reading this: thanks, you can be the wall for my back to be up against. We’ll see how I feel in a week.

Playing Games I Don’t Like

I got a few comments after the Citizens of Earth Aggrochat episode about my ability to play a game I didn’t like to completion.

It’s something I honed while working as a game designer– forcing myself to play something I don’t think I like lets me turn on the analysis and really look at what’s bothering me about it. In game design, feedback of “this sucks” or “I don’t like X” is effectively worthless feedback; it pretty much gets ignored by default (other than, occasionally, “we need to change this”) because it doesn’t offer any useful information.

On the other hand, feedback that’s specific and focused gives a team a lot to work with, and lets us make informed changes based on things people don’t like. Spending a lot of time in that environment leads you to change the way you present your own feedback– “I didn’t enjoy this” stops being something you say, and instead “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do here”, or “this segment is too easy” or “this NPC’s dialogue doesn’t make sense” all provide comments that offer something useful to work from.

That being said, feedback is important. In college, I had a PSP that was gathering dust, hadn’t been used in years and wasn’t about to see any use. Someone on the college mailing list wanted a PSP really badly, and was willing to trade a brand new Xbox 360 for it, along with a couple of games. I was, at this point, deep in my “PC Master Race” mindset, but it wasn’t like I was using the PSP and I thought it would be cool to have a shiny new console, if only so my roommate and visitors could use it. I basically decided to swap something I didn’t care about for something new and shiny.

The games that came with it were Forza and Gears of War, the two (at the time) most stereotypical possible games to have for the console. Being a broke college student, I couldn’t afford any others, so it was those or nothing. I booted up Gears of War, figuring I’d hate it and that I could maybe trade it in. What I found instead was a game that did some things I’d never seen before (this was the dawn of the cover shooter, so it wasn’t old hat yet) and provided me challenges that I wasn’t getting on the PC side of things. It was different, and totally out of my usual wheelhouse, but I found some interesting things in there nevertheless.

The cover was nonsense to me, the epitome of meathead space marine nonsense that I thought myself intellectually superior to. It was an arrogance I had to choke back down later, because I genuinely enjoyed myself.

Since then, I make it a point to put time into games I don’t think I’ll like. While I was working in the industry, I was a lot better at this, just because I made sure I kept up on every single major release. Now I’m slightly less invested, though I still play the really big-ticket games (haven’t played Bloodborne yet, though).

It’s showed me stuff that I never expected to like, and has informed my design choices, seeing what works and what doesn’t in different games. There’s some stuff you can do in a first-person military shooter that you just can’t in your standard fantasy MMO, and those things are worth experiencing. I force myself to play some games all the way through because I’ve found that even the biggest travesties of video games have some redeeming moment somewhere that’s worth seeing.

Games are diverse and a lot of fun. Try a game you might never have touched before– try a game in a genre you’d never have touched before. You might be surprised, and if you find an unexpected gem of a genre, you might suddenly realize there’re a whole bunch of games you can play that you’d never have considered before.

Pillars of Eternity, again

Short post today, I’ve got a lot of work to do.

I promised I’d return to Pillars of Eternity, and I have. I spent a bit of time in it this weekend and got through the first bit of tutorial. It’s a game that will probably be good, but still hasn’t quite hooked me. Wrong game at the wrong time for me.

What I can say is that the storytelling is already quite good, much as I expected from Obsidian. The actual gameplay is a bit slow, with a lot of time spent watching my characters run from place to place. Movement isn’t interesting outside of combat, so it winds up being a lot of clicking and a lot of awkwardly moving the camera around.

I realize these are standard features of the genre, but they’re grating on me as I try to play, which is why I think it’s a game I’ll need to come back to later, when I’m in the right mood for it. It does feel like a really good classic PC RPG, though.

EDIT: Sorry this post is late. I hit the wrong day for it to publish! D:

Soft Skills

I’ve been transitioning over the past six months from a game designer to a team lead/project manager. Specifically, the kind of person whose job it is to ensure that everyone working on their team has the resources and shielding they need to do excellent work, or, for the cynical, meddle and ruin everything.

There’s a similarity in both fields that I’ve found interesting. Most people don’t tend to believe that either game design or management are “skills”, in the classic sense of the term. There isn’t the same view as people take when talking about mathematics, or programming, or mechanical engineering– those things involve skills, and there’s a deference given to people who can have them. You’re unlikely to, as a non-programmer, suggest to a programmer that you could whip up a secure peer-to-peer networking solution if you felt like it.

As a game designer, however, it was interesting to me how often people would say one of three things to me:

1.) “Oh, I thought about making games for a living, but decided not to.”

2.) “Hey, I have this cool idea that you haven’t thought of, you should use it!”

3.) “Man, I played [game], those guys/you screwed up some obvious stuff! I can’t believe they were such idiots!”

These aren’t people intending to be disrespectful or crass; most of the time it’s an honest attempt to find common ground or strike up a conversation, but there’s a very real belief underlying the comments– the skills employed by a game designer aren’t “real”, at least in the sense that they’re skills that most people lack. There’s an underlying implication that anyone could be a game designer, just that the people who are doing it either got to it first or couldn’t find something better to do.

There’s a similar train of thought that I see applied to management– it’s very popular to hate on anyone with “manager” in their title, or just the concept of leadership and management in general. From within game development, there was a pervasive, strong distrust of anyone in any sort of leadership position beyond a team’s direct reports.

The distrust is so pervasive, in fact, that finding suitable images for “stupid boss” and similar made finding images for this post trivial, whereas finding suitable images talking about “soft skills” led to very little of use.

I think we distrust soft skills, and by extension the people who use them. The idea that being a good communicator is a skill bothers people at some fundamental level, and it leads to a certain disbelief when it comes to jobs that are more about soft skills than “hard” skills (programming, mathematics, etc). There’s a lot of research that’s been done on the topic, and it’s interesting how constrained to certain circles it is.

I’m fond of saying that people don’t have as much free will as they like to think they do, that conscious thought is consistently and radically affected by subconscious stimuli without our knowing. We are hardwired to be affected by our subconscious and rationalize our behaviors after the fact– you didn’t eat a whole bag of chips in one sitting because the combination of flavors is precisely tuned to drive your brain to crave more, you did it because those chips were delicious. That bit of rationalization says “sure, I made a questionable decision, but it was MY questionable decision, not influenced by someone who knows more than I do about how my brain works”.

I think this is why we distrust soft skills. It’s easier to accept that someone can do something you can’t, that involves a particular skill that you haven’t picked up, than it is to accept that someone can do the same thing you do, but better. In a sense, we’re less intimidated by people with skills we lack entirely than people who have the same skills we do but are better than we are at them. It’s player fantasy, applied to the real world.

If two very similar classes in an MMO have markedly different outputs, the game’s community rages– the game itself is broken, and for many players, the game is fundamentally unsatisfying unless the imbalance is reduced or removed. This has next to nothing to do with how much that difference in output affects their day to day play– the mere suggestion that someone else does the same thing they do, but better is enough to fuel anger. Sometimes this can be rationalized– some classes are “harder to play”, and this will mollify the playerbase. The “hard skill” of playing the class is justifiable, and more accepted.

I think the same thing is true of soft skills– the concept of a really excellent communicator (a marketer, almost by definition) is viewed with distrust and often outright venom by people who value “hard” skills. I’ve had friends tell me to my face that “business types” are poison and the worst people, even knowing that I’m pursuing a business degree.

I often suspect that I’m exempt from this label because I’m still developing my skills, I’m not a “real” businessperson and thus it’s easier to rationalize me away. I wonder how many friendly relationships are sabotaged simply over the divide between the concept of “soft skills” vs “hard skills”. I suspect it’s a very high number.

Dubbing vs Subbing

I was at Sakuracon for a few hours this weekend, and a few overheard conversations reminded me of a longstanding debate within the anime community about subtitled or dubbed shows. Essentially, the debate boils down to whether it’s better to watch a show in the original Japanese, with subtitles, or with English voiceovers.

I came into anime at some weird times. The first was when I was young, too young to really appreciate terribly much nuance in my entertainment, so truly horrendous voice acting was lost on me. I then stayed out of anime for nearly a decade, coming back to either obviously dated shows or newer shows with higher budgets and quality English voice acting.

As a result, the debate is somewhat lost on me. Terrible voiceovers are going to grate on me whether they’re in Japanese or English, and subtitling is going to annoy me. I feel like, in a lot of higher-budget anime, the voice acting and translation have long since gotten good enough that subtle nuances of tone and wit are able to be expressed.

I’d much rather watch a show with good voice acting in a language I can understand (because I don’t speak Japanese) than try to imagine the spoken tone matching up with the text I’m reading. In a show I’ve been watching recently, a major plot point centered around a character’s continual use of a particular phrase, one that I didn’t pick up on at all over the entire preceding 15-20 episodes of the show because the linguistic nuance in Japanese was utterly lost on me.

Yakitate Japan — it’s an anime about baking bread done in the style of a tournament fighting show. Yes, I’m serious. It’s amazing.

In the meantime, I’ve also watched some of the Persona 4 anime, with English dubbing, and I’ve found the voice actors do a fantastic job both nailing the characters and hitting clever nuance and jokes where they’d otherwise fall flat. A few characters pull off some deadpan humor that I think works really well if you speak the language but would be really hard to pick up on otherwise.

The whole subbed vs dubbed debate seems like a relic of a largely bygone era to me. Perhaps I’m wrong, and that poor dubbing is still rampant, but most of the anime I’ve seen that’s from the last five years or so has really excellent English voiceovers. Maybe it’s because I only watch high-production-value anime, I don’t know.

I feel like there’s a healthy contingent of anime fans who got into it when dubbing was really bad, because it was most low-budget imports, and that as dubbing has improved there’s been a shift from subtitles being the only way to get a coherent story and overall experience to a general belief that subtitles are the only “authentic” way to view anime.

I do know a number of people, mostly those with some background in Japanese (whether they speak it or not), who prefer the subtitles for various reasons, which I think is fine. It does bother me somewhat to see anime fans at conventions criticizing one another for their choice in viewing options, though. I’m not sure when being a nerd became so divisive. Maybe it was always this way.

Either way, there’s some good anime out there, that’s probably worth your time. It’s an incredibly diverse medium, I keep finding, with both creative plays on existing concepts and new, really bizarre ideas. The nice part about animation as a medium is that it allows you to do really high-concept stuff without breaking the bank, budget-wise, for things like special effects and scenery. There’s a lot of really neat genre fiction and explorations of topics I would never have thought would make a good show. Apparently one of the big shows lately has something to do with soccer players? It’s fascinating.

4:30 am

I’m not a morning person. I don’t like getting up early and never have.

From Weather Underground

Due to having recently moved from the East Coast to the West Coast, not to mention my kind of weird schedule currently, I’ve been sleeping (and waking up) at weird hours. Sometimes I’ll fall asleep at 3am and sleep till 11. Sometimes I’m up until 6 and wake up past noon. Other times I’m tired at 9pm and go to sleep then, only to wake up in the ridiculous hours of the morning.

I’m writing this at one of those times. It’s 4:30 am, and I’m awake. There is no alone like waking up in your bed by yourself at 4:30 am. Even River, ever hyper and prone to waking up at a moment’s notice, is completely asleep. It will still be a while yet before anything opens, so I can’t very well get up and get breakfast– even the late-night places are closed at this hour.

It’s not a time I see very often on the waking-up side. Usually, if I am awake at this time, it’s because I’m catching a flight. I associate this time with that little thrill of anticipation, of an adventure not quite hatched, but right now there’s not really any adventure waiting.

Perhaps fittingly, it’s also a time I associate with conversations. Being awake at a silly hour with someone else and talking; some of my most cherished conversations are borne of this hour. It’s when I get wordy and philosophical– I’ve been accused of brooding, which is probably accurate (I am writing this post, aren’t I?).

I’ve done a lot of driving at 4:30 am,  getting up for no good reason and driving around aimlessly until the sun comes up, dodging the morning rush. It’s more satisfying on weekdays, I’m not sure why. Things are quieter, maybe.

Now that I’m on the West Coast, 4:30 for me is 7:30 for a number of my friends, and they’re sometimes already up and chatting. It’s an immense relief for me. I sleep with my phone and a tablet next to the bed for that connection, early in the morning. There are precious few people who get to have your attention at 4:30 am, and being in touch with people for whom it isn’t 4:30 am makes that awareness easier. Unless it’s an emergency or some special occasion, most people would not be interested in talking at 4:30 am unless they’re really, really close to you.

Perhaps weirdly, I cherish the moment. The intense sense of being alone makes me appreciate the times when I’m not. It’s a balance thing. I wouldn’t mind for an instant if I didn’t have it, but since it’s here I might as well make the best of it.

I have things to do today, and it’s almost light out. I can probably rouse the puppy and then go get breakfast, turning the 4:30 am melancholy into an actual, functional day. There’s no alone like 4:30 am, but it does make me appreciate the rest of the day.

Thanks for reading.

Everything Happens For A Reason

In the heyday of the WWII shooter, I remember hearing a lot of people asking why on earth we were inundated with the same sort of games, and why the really big blockbusters are all so similar. It’s something I was never sure of myself, until I learned about something called Hotelling’s Location Model. Any economists reading this will likely chuckle to themselves, and will probably correct the next bit of what I’m going to talk about in the comments.

Ever driven out into the middle of nowhere? I’m talking miles and miles out, past the boonies into those little towns that don’t appear on most maps, just barely in range of maybe two radio stations, which are both playing the same country music. Ugh, you’d think they’d, y’know, play some different stuff and cover different audiences. Or, you’re checking out local restaurants and realize there are two nearly identical restaurants right next to one another. What are they thinking, aren’t they hurting themselves by being that close?

Here’s how it happens. Say there’s a beach, with a bunch of people spread out on it, more or less evenly, because they all want their space.

Laguna Beach, via wikimedia commons.

The City Council decides that it will issue a permit for one person to sell ice cream on the beach, on two conditions:

1.) The City sets the prices of the ice cream– this is to benefit beachgoers with a minimum of beach crowding, not line some monopolist’s pockets.

2.) The ice cream stall must set up no earlier than 10am, allowing time for the beachgoers to enter the beach and get settled. No parking at the entrance and advertising as people come in.

(What we’re doing here is controlling two variables: price and market. We want to look at WHERE the stall goes.)

So, here’s our beach:

this is a beach, i swear.

this is a beach, i swear.

Our ice cream vendor can set up on the boardwalk along the top there. Where along it does our ice cream vendor want to set up shop?

It’s easy– sell ice cream to the most number of people, which means minimizing the distance they have to walk to get ice cream. Right in the middle.



Pretty straightforward. Our ice cream vendor sells ice cream, everyone is happy, except for those people out at the edges who need to walk halfway across the beach to get ice cream. They petition the City Council to allow more vendors, and the City decides to let another vendor set up shop.

Now there are two vendors. Since each vendor is stuck with the rules above, the only way they can make more money is by selling more ice cream, which means being the closest vendor for the largest possible number of people. One of them is, inevitably, going to get to the beach first and set up shop. Where should that first ice cream vendor go?

Answer: Right in the middle. These vendors are competing, they want the most customers. You might be thinking that it’s better for the two vendors to split up, maybe divide the beach in half, something like this:


It’s a good thought, and if the two vendors are colluding, this might happen. If they’re both in it for themselves, though, and the first one takes that quarter-length spot, here’s the best place for the second one:


In that position, the second one is the closest vendor to the biggest portion of the beach, and is going to come out ahead. If the first vendor sets up right in the center, so will the second vendor, just barely off to one side, and each will have half of the beach.

As the model goes, it applies to things other than physical location, too. If a clothing store offers a certain variety of products, and another clothing shop opens, they’re going to stock very similar products, hoping to hit the broadest segment of their piece of the market. If one offers a better selection (read: has a bigger chunk of the beach), it’s going to do better, and both stores will fight to keep up with one another, ultimately winding up very similar. It’s how you get the same country music on the same two stations out in the middle of nowhere, the two coffeeshops right across the street from one another, and years of military shooters, all incrementally different from the previous generation but still in nearly perfect lock-step with one another, until everyone is tired of them and a new kind of blockbuster crops up.

two nearly identical shoe shops, right next to one another.


This returns me to the bit at the top. No one here is being an idiot, the decisions are very carefully considered. The end result doesn’t appear to make sense at first, but it absolutely does once you puzzle it out. All of those military shooters, all of those country music stations, all of those shoe shops are looking out for their own best interests– and any deviation from that is extremely risky.

There’s the saying: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” It’s a good saying, but I think there’s a followup:

“Never attribute to stupidity that which is part of a system you don’t fully understand.”

A lot of things that seem unintuitive at first suddenly make sense when you see the whole picture, and it’s really, really hard to see the whole picture. Certainly there are mistakes that people make on the individual level, but when you’re talking about really big systems with lots of moving parts (like the video game development economy), there’s a lot of stuff that it’s really hard to see.

This was something I learned about today that I thought was interesting, and thought might be worth sharing. Hopefully you found it interesting too.

Binging on Persona 4

Part of what I did during my week off was pour a huge amount of time into my second playthrough of Persona 4. It’s basically a high-fidelity visual novel with an elaborate dungeon-crawler minigame. I love it.

It handles social interactions in a really interesting way. Whereas in a lot of RPGs, there’s no real limit to the amount of talking with friends/party members you can do, in Persona talking with someone takes time, and you have a set amount of time (one year, game time) to make friends, build skills, and do… pretty much everything you want. On top of that, everyone and everything has their own schedule and may or may not be available at different times. It’s actually impossible to fully complete the game on the first playthrough, because you have to spend time building up skills like Courage, Understanding, Knowledge, Diligence, and Expression, many of which are necessary when dealing with other people.

Yes, the silent, self-insert protagonist's default name is "Yu". They are not above terrible puns.

My playthrough was a New Game+ run, which lets me start with the money, the weapon unlocks, the stats, and the persona compendium (like a pokedex, except you can summon your pokemon from it for a fee) that I’d built up in the previous run. This saves a LOT of time building up stats and farming equipment, money, and personas, letting me focus on the relationship side of things (Social Links, in-game).

The difference is pretty stark between the normal game and NG+. There are at least five social links I missed entirely on my first playthrough, and several more that I started but didn’t complete. There’s also an entire bonus dungeon that I missed the first time through and a secret boss that I’ve now missed twice, because my timing sucked. Some of the choices you make also pretty heavily influence dialogue, so I got some very different responses from characters than I did in my first run. The structure is all the same, but the second playthrough gives me a lot more freedom to explore, and say things/make choices that I couldn’t have made previously.

Two of the best characters in the game.

All of the time spent with the characters wouldn’t be worth a lot if they weren’t good characters, and P4 has some excellent ones. I think the game suffers a little bit from introducing four party members very quickly, two of which are easily unlikable (one of which I find annoying at the start and despise utterly by the end of the game) and one of which is kind of bland and trope-y. Of the [Yosuke, Chie, Yukiko, Teddie] group at the start of the game, I really only like Chie. The others (not Teddie) get deeper and more interesting later in the game, but it takes a long time, and by then you have other, more interesting party members.

The above song is stuck in my head now. It’s a mild spoiler, but the game tells you up front, within the first few lines, that you’ll be around for a year and then will be leaving. This means that, right near the end (winter in the game), you’ve made a whole bunch of friends and are coming to terms with your dwindling time remaining with them. The overworld theme, that you hear as you run around, is replaced with Snowflakes in P4 Golden (the Vita version), which adds a bunch of content included an extended ending (lasting an extra month).

That extra month serves as a lengthy denouement to the game, bringing you from the final (?) boss to the end of the game, giving you ample time to wrap things up and tie up any loose ends you might have, or just enjoying the company of your friends in the game (even if you’ve maxed out their social links, they have more stuff to do and say in the denouement). It’s savagely bittersweet and one of the best endings to a game that I’ve ever played.

It’s something I’d like to see more of in RPGs. The extended denouement really wraps up the story nicely, far better than a boss battle -> 5-10 minute cinematic -> end credits cycle does.

I’d be a proponent of moving the final boss battle forward about 10-15% in a game, and turning that ending section into post-victory endgame, where you get to spend some interactive time enjoying your victory.





Pillars of Eternity and “Classic” Mechanics

I booted up Pillars of Eternity this past weekend, and I can tell it’s a game I’m going to enjoy… eventually.

I was instantly frustrated by character creation. Choose from a bunch of stats, hope that the “recommended” stats are actually the ones you want, try to make sense out of spell descriptions without any context whatsoever, drop your character in the game world. Hope you made the right choices because going back is going to mean fiddling with the character creator again and sitting through all of the intro stuff, making sure you run around and hit all of the boxes and conversations and whatnot again.

There are some really interesting races and story stuff hinted at here, though, so that's a plus.

I have no idea what those stats do at this juncture. Significant? No? How can I tell?

Yes, this is a classic trope of a lot of western RPGs. No, I don’t think it’s good or worthy in any way. Contextless choice is already annoying, and making those choices important and largely unchangeable is doubly so. Expecting you to know the game before you start playing it is– I’ll just say it– bad design.

The first section of a game is a tutorial anyway: why not put that before character creation? Let me get a feel for the controls, how various spells and abilities function in the actual game, and then make better-informed choices based on that. Most of the time, it’s entirely justifiable within the game’s story, and if you can make a more exciting intro sequence, possibly not even using the character(s) you’ll actually create, you can justify whatever.

I also read the type of dwarf as "Bored Dwarves" several times. I'd play a bored dwarf.

How significant is that +15? Am I going to see those enemy types? I HAVE NO IDEA.

As tempting as it would be to play a Dwarf Wizard just to annoy Bel, I'm not going to.

The addition of hover-text to show me what various keywords mean is nice, but it’s still just giving me numbers that I have no context for.

When mimicking a classic style but making it more modern, I think it’s important to look at all of the pieces of what that style does and how/why they work (or don’t!). Just doing it because of genre conventions is a good way to wind up with a very same-y sort of game. That isn’t to say that you won’t necessarily retain some of the genre conventions, because a lot of those are developed over years of iteration and provably work, or provide familiar, comfortable anchor points for your players to hook into, but keeping them without reevaluating how necessary they are to your construct tends to make things awkward.

Also, the speed is "average". That's nice to know... I think?

More numbers, zero context. Is 20-30 damage a lot? How much HP do I have? What is the significance of the defense? Am I giving up much to get the “Hobbled” effect?

The vast improvement here is that I can tell that this spell helps me hit with this spell more. It lets me pick other spells based on the targeted defense. The fact that this is a big step forward is a little sad.

I love the hover-text! I can find out what Hobbled does and… oh, it… it tells me some more contextless numbers. Bear in mind that at this point in character creation I STILL haven’t allocated stat points, so I don’t know what stat ranges even are, so there’s literally zero context for these values.

I will say that Pillars of Eternity looks fantastic, and the controls are delightful thus far. Having picked up the remakes of Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate 2, Pillars feels more modern and more advanced right out of the gate. I really want to be able to play it co-op, the way I played the old BG games. The UI is slick, movement and actions are responsive and feel pretty good, and the visuals are detailed without being cluttered.

I’ll eventually sit down and get into it, once I have the patience to sort through characters and replay the intro five or six times to settle on a class I like. Despite my initial frustrations, it’s absolutely looking like it’ll be a game that I’ll put some serious time into.