Managing My Backlog

I have a Steam backlog again. Somewhere in the autumn of last year, I’d managed to pretty much clear it out, but it really didn’t take long to grow again.


Something I’m realizing, as I scroll through it, is that the sheer list of titles is overwhelming, and sorting it is somewhat difficult. When I was actively working in the games industry, I kept a paper-filled binder with one page devoted to each game– as I got it, I’d write the game title at the top. It was easy to check and see which games were “in the queue”, because I could just flip to the first blank page in the notebook– that was the game I was going to play when I sat down to play a game. I could move on after playing either ten hours or filling up a page with notes. Sometimes a game required that I stick in more pages, but most didn’t.

I don’t really play games in that kind of directed way in my spare time anymore. While effective at making sure I played everything, it really sapped my enjoyment of playing games in general. I scheduled several hours a week to sit down and play the queue, and I managed to make even games that were fun less enjoyable because of the constant press of both note-taking and the backlog.

When my hard drive died a while back, I had an opportunity to look at my Steam library with fresh eyes. I had a crazy number of games that were “in the queue”, but I no longer felt obligated to play all of them, and particularly before moving, I was burned out on playing games as much as I’d been. When I moved to Seattle, I pared down my physical possessions, but I also went through and looked at my video games, to see what I was going to keep and what I still wanted to play. I couldn’t move all of it, so I kept a very small number of console titles and took a long, hard look at my Steam library. What I wound up doing was going through the entire list and installing only what I knew I wanted to play, and ignoring everything else, even if I hadn’t played it. Some games had been “in the queue” for years, and I’d find myself doing pretty much anything else if it looked like I’d have to play them.

It’s the main reason I was able to clear out my backlog– I reduced my backlog to only games I wanted to play, then played them. It helped that for most of last year I couldn’t really afford new games. I still got some pickups, mostly gifts over Christmas and some new releases, and I’ve accumulated a small backlog at this point– probably about ten games. I know this can spiral out of control quickly, so I want to come up with a better way of managing it.


It turns out Steam has the ability to set games as “favorites”. While it’s probably going to make my store suggestions a little insane (they’re already kind of nonsense thanks to Hatoful Boyfriend as Aggrochat’s Game of the Month, so no big loss there), I can put all of my active backlog games in Favorites, and then remove them as I play them. It kind of lets me focus on what’s “active” for me right now, and if I see something languishing in the list, I can de-favorite it.

As of this writing, here’s the list:

Among The Sleep — a first-person horror game where you play as a very young child

Binary Domain — I picked this up during my cravings for cyberpunk games, but never played it (got distracted by Shadowrun Hong Kong)

Pillars of Eternity — This has been in my “active” queue for a really long time, and I’m waiting until I’m on a fantasy kick to try to delve into it again.

Read Only Memories — another cyberpunk title, picked it up, never sat down with it.

Satellite Reign — I really liked the couple of hours I put into this, but haven’t picked it back up

Shadowrun: Hong Kong – Extended Edition — probably the first game on the list I’m going to play, for the new post-game content which is already rather good.

Sorcery! Parts 1 & 2 — I don’t remember where I heard good things about this, but the premise (narrative fantasy RPG in an interactive novel style) sounds neat.

Tales of Zestiria — I got really heavily into this for a while, got to a point where I needed to run around the world at length, and lost steam. I want to finish it, because I want to see where it’s going, but I haven’t quite gotten around to getting over that timesink portion.

Warframe — The game I’m actively playing right now, it sits here because I’m logging in most days, it’s about as “active” a game as I can get.

Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide — I’ve heard good things about this and I want to give it a shot. It got drowned in Warframe a bit.

The Witness — Heard incredible things about this, I really want to jump into it when I have the spare mental bandwidth for a ‘heavy’ game.

I’m going to try to write about these as I play them, we’ll see how well that works.

Shadowrun: Hong Kong Enhanced Edition

I really enjoy the Shadowrun games by Harebrained Schemes. The writing is great, the quality jumps up every iteration, and new, interesting options arise with each new release. This past week, SR:HK got updated to the Enhanced Edition, offering a new “epilogue” portion of the game to come after completing the main story.


I’m really excited about this. The ending of Shadowrun: Hong Kong left some loose ends, and it seems like the epilogue is there to help tie them up. I jumped in briefly this afternoon and I’m already interested in the setup and its new characters. It’s got layers of stuff going on and I get a lot of opportunity to express my character, really quickly. It also pulls from my complete-game save file, and so I’m starting with my gear and stats, so I’m already pretty badass to start with, no mucking about with terrible roomba-drones, I’m going straight to the flying minigun drones.

Part of the reason I really like the Shadowrun games is because they give me that “running around in a high-tech future” feel without getting bogged down in unwieldy controls or overly-convoluted technology or stories, or being post-apoc. There are precious few really solid sci-fi games out there, and I often find myself frustrated that I just want to jump into a cool cyberpunk world and explore, but there aren’t many of those. I’m really excited about the upcoming Deus Ex, for example, but otherwise pickings are slim.

What I like about the Shadowrun games is that I get the impression there’s a lot of world out there beyond what I’m immediately looking at. Even what I’m doing, the big victories, are still fairly personal and likely not one for the history books– even Deus Ex, which I love, has a whole thing where the earlier games in the timeline are literally in the history books of the later ones. Another game that feels similar is Satellite Reign, which I haven’t had time to play more of but I really enjoyed right off the bat. It seemed a little more story-lite than Shadowrun, though, but I liked the mechanics more.

I often finish games and want *just* a little bit more, which is why the SR:HK epilogue is so exciting for me. I don’t necessarily want to extend the experience out forever– I’m actually frustrated when I try to do this in games, because it feels like I’m not actually moving forward, I’m just spinning my wheels (a problem I often have with Fallout games once I’ve finished the main storyline, and why the main story is important for me in those games). The addition of the epilogue really adds a lot for me, and often makes me want to restart and play the entire game again, something I rarely do. I wasn’t totally happy with my SR:HK ending, for example, and kind of want to play through it again and make some different choices before going into the epilogue.

In a similar vein, I want to return to Mass Effect 3, since the “citadel party” DLC came out a while back and I’ve heard it’s very good. It makes me want to go back and look at some of my other games and see which have come out with cool post-ending DLC with more epilogue-style content, there’s got to be a number of them.

It’s Okay To Be Good At Things

So many people I know are loathe to talk about themselves, particularly about things they’re good at. They will hasten to deflect compliments and deny endorsements like they’re warding off demons, lest even accepting praise mark them as a braggart, that most terrible of labels. We’ve accepted this as standard, even praised it as “humility”, without realizing that our underestimation of ourselves limits both us and the people around us.


I’ve seen people oscillate between wanting to be recognized for their achievements and not wanting to call attention to themselves, even when it’s warranted. I’ve seen people overlook other people because they don’t realize what their skills are. I’ve known people for years without realizing what they’re capable of, because we’re so trained to avoid talking about ourselves.

When we see people who do talk about themselves, and we see their success, we’re often resentful. I’ve been there, and silently raged at someone whose self-aggrandizement got them attention and praise while my silent, hard work went ignored.

We can’t know what everyone around us is good at, unless we see them at it or they tell us. By extension, everyone around us can’t know what we’re good at unless we tell them. It’s not just okay, but important that people know what we’re good at, because that helps us all solve problems more efficiently and effectively. Communication is important, quite possibly the most important thing, and part of that communication is allowing others the opportunity to know what we can be relied upon to do.

I poured a ton of work into perfecting a prototype at one point, submitted it to my boss, and proceeded to have it ignored for years. I didn’t want to come off as arrogant or pushy, so I left my initial pitch and left it without further comment. This frustrated me, and festered, and when, years later, I was told that I should demonstrate building something unique and interesting, I was livid– I’d done exactly that and was completely ignored. In not communicating this thing that I had done and done well, I had simultaneously absolved myself of responsibility for recognizing it.

Here’s the thing: no one knew that prototype better than I did. No one knew that it had survived, stable and without problems, through more than a hundred codebase iterations. No one knew that it was implementable from scratch in less than an hour, and was modular enough that every implementation could easily be unique. All of these things were valuable, but in expecting other people to notice the work that I’d done, in being “humble” about my work and not self-promoting, I had pushed the responsibility for recognizing the strengths of my work on people who weren’t in a position to realize them.

A few friends of mine, after reading my post on Impostor Syndrome, suggested that impostor syndrome could be called “humility” elsewhere, and implied that it was a good thing to be, as one person put it, “realistic about your shortcomings”. I don’t disagree that being realistic about one’s own shortcomings is valuable, but recognizing shortcomings without also recognizing one’s strengths is very problematic. It dooms us to laboring unseen and unrecognized, and to resent those around us for not magically realizing how awesome we are. It can be very damaging, as that lack of external recognition (through a simple lack of knowledge) turns inward, making us disbelieve our own skills and making us worse at what we do.

It doesn’t take a lot to find scientific studies that support that we are capable of much more when we believe ourselves capable, and much less when we don’t. When we put ourselves in a downward spiral, where we don’t believe in our own skills, we actually get worse at those skills. When we believe in our skills, we measurably become better at them. It’s why positive feedback is vitally important for any manager, and why specific recognition is crucial. Those things fuel a fire of productivity and capability for us, but we need to start that fire with a spark. That spark is communication– letting people know that there is ample space and material to start a fire.

It’s okay to be good at things. Everyone I know is good at things, and many of them know it, even if they refuse to admit it. Accepting that you’re good at something is a key step in becoming great at them.

Four Emotions

Something I’ve picked up recently is how difficult it is to talk about emotions. We define very complex emotions for ourselves, and use them to mask underlying feelings. We’re “stressed”, or “frustrated”, or “excited”, or we “feel like” and follow up with an analogy.


An exercise I’ve done recently cuts to the root of that. It asks people to express feelings, but limits the available emotions to only ones that can be universally understood. Sadness, anger, happiness, and fear are all we’re allowed to use to describe our mental state. Analogies are not emotions, “stressed” isn’t an emotion; we have to revert to those four. The explanation given is that if, say, someone close to you dies, you may have a broad mix of feelings about that, mostly sadness, but the specific way that you’re feeling is unique to you. No one can understand that, but they can understand sadness.

In a way, it removes context from emotion, and I’m continually surprised by how much it isn’t necessary. I don’t need to understand the complexities of office politics or management structures to understand that being passed up for a promotion makes someone angry– I know anger, even if I don’t know the context. It might be a blend of anger and fear– said person is angry about being passed up but afraid to say anything lest they rock the boat too much– I don’t need to understand the politics involved to know the fear. They might even be a little happy to be passed up, because the position wasn’t exactly what they wanted and it means they’re next in line for something they might like better. It can be a very complicated situation, but I can understand the anger, the fear, and the optimistic happiness.

The exercise also forces us to break apart how we feel about things into discrete pieces. I can feel sad and happy about something at the same time, and while I might call that “bittersweet” or “wistful”, I can break it down into simpler terms; bittersweet for me may be a mixture of happiness and sadness, but it could be happiness and anger for someone else. For some people, nostalgia is a blend of happiness and fear– that things have changed and that kind of happiness is lost. Nostalgia might also be happiness and anger– things were good, but they’ve changed and shouldn’t have. Language has endless ways to obscure our true feelings behind elaborate words.

One of the things I’ve caught myself doing since doing the exercise a goodly number of times is mentally reducing my emotions to simplest terms. I find it’s easier for me to understand them, and I’m a lot less conflicted about how I feel about things, because I’m used to forming clear definitions. Simple emotions allow me to feel multiple things at once without getting bogged down, and most things make me feel more than one. I’ve found that it’s easier to express how I feel to other people, and moreover, that I can express myself in such a way that people’s responses make me feel more understood, and thus happy.

One habit I still have is to express my current state in terms of objective fact, leaving the feelings hanging and unexpressed. I’ll state what is happening but not how I feel about it, leaving it up to the listener to infer. I’ll do this when I’m not yet sure how I feel about something, or if I don’t feel strongly about it, or if I’m afraid of being judged if I express how I feel. I’m trying to break myself of this habit, because while it often leads to conversations, it rarely leads to an exchange of feelings, and thus often feels detached or impersonal.

On the other hand, I’ve found that people I would never have expected to understand me can relate when I express myself with just four basic emotions. It felt overly simplistic at first, but I’ve found I’ve been able to communicate a lot more clearly, at least judging by the responses I get, and I find out a lot more about people when I express myself.

We’re heavily socialized to avoid talking about emotions, and tamping down how we feel about things, to the point where we forget that it’s okay to feel things– it’s part of what makes us human. By expressing my own emotions more readily, I’ve found that I can draw out other people’s and allow them the space to express their own emotions, and I always feel closer to that person as a result. I’m very glad that I was in the right frame of mind to be accepting and open to the series of exercises that spawned all of this, because as much as I wish I could share it with everyone I know, I’m aware that not everyone would be as receptive, for any number of reasons.

It’s kind of the other piece of things. It’s okay to feel things, and it’s okay to choose not to share. I just hope that everyone reading this has someone they can share with if they so desire. If not, get in touch with me privately; I’ll talk to you.


I’m really motivated by efficiency. I like to see how things can be done effectively, and once they’re done effectively, how to do them faster, using fewer resources, and in general, “better”. It’s rarely enough for me to get something done; I’d rather get it done well. I had someone the other day ask me about this, and ask me about my process for writing and working, so here we are.

I want to meet this guy's tailor.

I want to meet this guy’s tailor.

I’m big into efficiency because I’m fundamentally lazy. My mom is nodding her head right now and probably doesn’t know why, but her admonitions during my childhood were pretty much spot on. I don’t like to do unnecessary work, and I like to figure out ways in which I can do things that need doing quickly, because getting things done quickly means less time spent doing them. Speed isn’t everything, though, because getting something done fast but having to do it twice isn’t saving me any time, and I have to retread (boring!) work I’ve done already. “Measure twice, cut once” resonates with me because measuring is a lot less work than cutting, the savings in materials aside.

People ask me how long I spend doing various tasks, and tend to be surprised by my answer. I recently finished a paper for a class in about an hour and a half, for four pages. A classmate of mine expressed surprise that I was so quick; it didn’t seem particularly fast or slow for me. Part of it is that I’m used to writing– these blog posts are 700-1200ish words every day, and I rarely take more than 30-45 minutes writing them. A lot of it, though, is just writing efficiency. I write like I play Tetris, setting up a block of thoughts and massaging them until they’re complete, then moving on. It means I don’t have to keep the entire paper in my head at once and can focus on what I’m saying right now, because I’ve put the previous bits to bed, as it were. A lot of my editing is done on the fly, as I’m writing a sentence. If I’m editing something bigger or that needs deeper review, I ignore it for two or three days and return to it then– my mind is fresh and I’m not still thinking about the details of each paragraph, so I can review it more objectively.

My work process is similar; I look at a task and think about the minimum possible amount of work necessary to complete it, to establish a baseline. From there, I can then add content and broaden the scope reactively, as I work. A lot of times, I find that the parts I think are going to be time-consuming or have little room for further attention turn out to be easier than expected, and that parts I thought would be simple require a lot of careful thought and iteration. Knowing the minimum lets me get something in and functional quickly, then focus on where it can be improved effectively, without wasting time, effort, or resources.

All of this means that I have a long list of little ‘tricks’ to make my life easier, so when something requires a lot of focus and attention, I have the energy to spare. I never really know when these are going to come up, so I try to ensure that my daily energy expenditure is conservative, to keep that reserve going. I used to be apologetic about this, now I’m simply straightforward about it. Sometimes I don’t put in extra energy because that reserve is getting low, and that reserve is what allows me to keep a cool head in a crisis, or juggle lots of different things at once.

I’ve found it’s always worth taking the time to think about the process, because process is where a lot of work and time is lost. Sometimes the best solution isn’t necessarily the most complete one, just because the most complete one isn’t efficient. Coming up with a highly elegant, reusable and revisable script to automate a task I’m only going to do once isn’t terribly efficient; sure it does the work quickly, but I could do it by hand in about the same amount of time and run less risk of wasting a lot of effort. To that point, risk management is an important part of my process; if something I’m trying to make a task complete faster might end with me wasting a ton of time and not moving forward with the actual task, that’s a fairly high risk, and probably one I’ll avoid.

I don’t know how much of this is interesting or useful to anyone; all of the things I’m saying sound like really obvious, “duh tam, everyone knows that” kinds of thoughts. I’m still not yet great at getting out of my own head enough to know what things are obvious to everyone and which are obvious just to me and useful to others. Working on it, though, we’ll see.


I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year bridging the gap between two groups of people. I don’t have a good term for the first group– implementers, maybe. They describe themselves as the folks “in the trenches” actively making changes and additions to the project. Then there’s management– the producers, the leads, the people with direct reports, and increasingly, directors and executives.


The two groups tend to think of themselves as separate. I’ve noticed, at least in the games industry, that it’s much more pronounced on the implementer side than the management side. In games, the studio structure tends to mean that the management layers actually in the studio are often considered “in the trenches”, particularly since a lot of them do the same work as the implementers. Beyond that, though, you get what’s often termed “the publisher” or “corporate”. There tends to be a layer of distrust somewhere in there, on one side of which are the implementers and on the other side is “management”.

I remember a producer, once, who became a studio hero when she went to the publisher to fight for more time and resources for the team. I was relatively new to the industry, but I remember other people talking about how she was “one of the good ones” and similar positive associations with the implicit suggestion that she was the exception to the rule. I recently had a classmate, a senior manager, talk in glowing terms about one of his employees, someone who had taken some extra time to fill him in on the technical details of some project, and volunteered to join him in a meeting to explain them. He’d expressed that he often felt like his employees would exploit his lack of technical knowledge to get away with various things, and having someone take the time to explain and help out in a meeting was hugely valuable to him. Listening to him, I couldn’t shake the familiar sound of “this was one of the good ones” and that implication that the person was the exception.

At the same time, I’ve noticed something about the management sphere as I’ve entered it and spent more time there. Networking is hugely valuable, and almost ritualized. It’s rather more than just meeting people over drinks, although it’s often that also; there’s a structure to it that doesn’t exist in the meetings I’d often attend with game industry implementers. I’ve started to figure out what the difference is. It goes back to the examples above– the communication that is valuable and important. The old adage “talk is cheap” is misleading– it might be cheap, but it’s incredibly valuable. Having a producer go out and advocate for their team, or an employee advocate for their boss, is a hugely endearing thing. It bridges gaps, it forms bonds, and it galvanizes relationships.


I’m starting a new job this morning, and I have it through a series of people who have all advocated for me. A classmate who I got to know well put me in contact with a firm who, upon meeting and talking with me, advocated on my behalf for the company I’ll be working for. Rather than consigning endless resumes to the void and going through interminable interview sessions with very little give and take, I instead had a variety of conversations about what they were looking for, what I was looking for, and how we could meet in the middle, and had a verbal offer before leaving the one and only 90-minute interview I had. I benefited hugely from others advocating for me.

In games, it’s often said that it’s “all about who you know”, which is true– it’s much easier to get a job if you know someone at the studio you want to work for who will, as above, advocate for you. What I’ve noticed in the management sphere is that what that advocacy looks like is very different. The business world has an ingrained understanding of exchanges, and since so much of it is about communication, exchanges of social currency are often understood. Those networking meetings are effectively interviews without specific positions; you meet people with the goal of finding personalities and skills that fit with needs you can think of. When you find someone, you know who to talk to– often someone who you’ve got a relationship of some kind with. “I used to work for X, I know they’re looking to fill my old position, let me talk to a friend of mine there”.

I wondered, when I first started meeting people in the business sphere, why everyone was so enthusiastic about helping others find positions if they wanted them. When I’d see the conversations, I’d just assumed those people were close friends, and it wasn’t until I had people advocating for me that I realized what was going on. The advocacy helps both sides, and the advocate benefits twice. People are looking for opportunities to advocate for others. It mirrors what I’m used to in games, where everyone helps everyone else find jobs, because no one knows when it’ll be them looking for a job. For me, it was familiar, and comforting to know that the two groups were not that different; one just had words for what they were doing.


I think one of the most valuable things I’ve learned from my MBA program is this structure of advocacy and how to do it properly. I’ve started watching for open opportunities and developing a sense of fit– who might I recommend who would fit in this kind of position? Who I know is suddenly just as valuable as what I know, because once I’m no longer directly implementing, my job revolves around communication, and knowing lots of people is as important for a communication-focused job as technical skills are to an implementation-focused one.

One of the things I want to look into as I point my newfound business managment knowledge through the lens of the games industry is how to foster advocacy between groups that are usually separate and distrustful of one another. More than anything, that advocacy drives strong relationships, and fostering that kind of environment can only be good for communication and understanding.

Impostor Syndrome

Polygon did an article about impostor syndrome recently, which I thought was rather good. It’s absolutely something I struggle with, and it’s something that virtually everyone I know feels to a greater or lesser degree. We’re all looking at someone else, who’s achieved more, done cooler or more successful things, and point to them as the kinds of folks who have it all together. It feels like we’re just a step away from someone realizing we don’t really know what we’re talking about, while people who actually know what’s up are the real successes.


Just browsing Facebook right now, scrolling through updates, I can see at least ten different people expressing impostor syndrome, making comments like “wow, this game is so great, I’m doing something wrong” or “I wonder what it’s like to actually be good at [whatever]” or “I hope no one realizes I have no idea what I’m doing” and similar sentiments. These are mainly very intelligent people, who are smart enough to know that they don’t know things and are concerned about getting called out on what they don’t know, what they haven’t accomplished, or what they’re missing.

Last year, I basically turned my life upside-down. I left my job to focus full-time on my MBA, with the intent to transition careers from something on the game design / implementation side to something on the management side. After a brief stint at a local Baltimore program, I found myself frustrated with the program and looking for something that would get me more what I was looking for– something that would get me out of Baltimore rather than build my network within it. I transferred, purged most of my possessions, and moved across the country, to a city where I knew three people and had had relatively little contact with all of them.

I’ve told this story to people, and I’ve had them describe me as “brave” for taking the risk. Whenever I hear that, there’s a part of me that instantly denies it. I tell myself that the difference between the brave and the very stupid is success– this choice I made was brave if I can make it work, and very stupid if I can’t. Like any risk, it’s hard to tell if it was a good move or a bad move except after the fact.

There’s been some unequivocal good that’s come out of it. I’ve become much closer with my friends who live here, closer than I’d ever been before I moved. I’ve had time and distance to reflect on myself and what I want, and that’s a clearer picture than ever before. My coursework is legitimately compelling and interesting– the program I’m in here is very good, and I really enjoy it. It’s forced me to grow in ways that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t moved. For the first time in years, I’m happy, and it’s happiness that’s not contingent on having everything I want.

At the same time, there’s this nagging feeling that it could all evaporate. It’s not stable, at least not until I can sustain and support myself, and I’m keenly aware of every passing day. I worry irrationally that someone is going to say “wait, what are you doing here thinking you can manage and lead people? Don’t you just make games?” I worry that if this doesn’t work out, I won’t have a fallback; I won’t be able to go back to working in games so easily if it came to that. I deeply worry that any apparent ability on my part is a combination of bluster and luck, and I’m not actually capable of any of the things I think I am.

Compounding the problem is that I’m rational and very good at rationale. I can justify these worries with evidence, to the point where I’m not even aware I’m doing it and I can’t tell if it’s a reasonable concern or an irrational one. I don’t have a job yet because I can’t actually do these things I think I can do. I do well in class because the work is easy and everyone in the class does well, not because I’m any good at it. I’m not insightful, I’m just stating the obvious.

When people talk about impostor syndrome, I can relate. For nearly every accomplishment I have, I have a reason why it’s not all that impressive, or a counter-example. I am waiting, eternally, for the other shoe to drop. It makes me reticent to speak my mind, or be honest about my thoughts, because what if someone calls me out on how wrong I am all the time? Moment of truth: some days the only thing that keeps me writing this blog is the general belief that no one really reads it. It’s a continual shock to me when someone comments and says they’ve read it.

A classmate of mine came up to me, recently, with a comment out of the blue: “You know, you’re a good guy and really smart. You’re way too hard on yourself. Give yourself a little more credit; you’re awesome and you don’t appreciate yourself enough.”

I tried; right now I can’t. I’m trying to get there, though. Instead, for anyone reading this for whom the feeling resonates, let me pass on my classmate’s sentiment. You’re great, and you’re way too hard on yourself. Give yourself credit– I may not even know you, but I know you’re more awesome than you realize. Take the time to appreciate yourself.

Thanks for reading.

Nonlinear Storytelling (Warframe)

Warframe and Destiny have a lot in common. They’re structurally very similar games, with the main differences being in the former’s emphasis on movement and the latter’s emphasis on tight gunplay. They also both have stories to tell, but are doing their best to stay out of your way while they sorta-tell them. They’re both doing a sort of osmosis-storytelling, where hints and pieces are meant to come together to form a narrative whole, rather than a linear storyline. In both games, the story is the world you inhabit, and like the real world, the amount of story you get from the world around you depends on how much you’re willing to look for it.


Neither game tells its stories very well. Warframe is better in that at least the story in the game can be viewed in the game, and when it does present questlines they’re coherent within themselves. Destiny, at least pre-Taken King, was largely incoherent and finding anything out about the story relied upon spending time reading websites rather than playing the game. Warframe’s tutorial is one of those coherent-within-itself storylines, and it and the first major questline following it both do a fairly good job of introducing the various factions you’re fighting.

You’re first introduced to the Grineer, one of whom is planning on taking you prisoner for some kind of biological experiments, and callously disregards you in general. He’s a pretty reasonable starter villain, though it’s fairly clear he hasn’t thought his plan all the way through. In that first mission, you’re introduced to the Grineer and to Lotus, your eye-in-the-sky, mysterious companion who more or less explains what’s going on and why you’re doing what you’re doing. By the end of the first mission, you’ve got a pretty good reason to fight the Grineer and you’re at least aware that Lotus is trying to help you, though her motivations aren’t exactly clear.

By the end of the tutorial, you’ve also met an arms dealer who is, presumably, how you do your shopping via the game’s market (though the timing of this is awkward), and you’ve rebuilt your own spaceship to get around from planet to planet. You know you’re some kind of warrior, and you’re markedly more powerful than the average soldier you face. Depending on how much you listened to dialogue, you may also have picked up that the Grineer are, for one reason or another, obsessed with genetics and that the Corpus (another major faction) are basically war profiteers who set up conflicts so they can profit off of them, like an evil megacorp.


Closing out the major factions is the second major questline, wherein you go to find out about Grineer biological weapons and uncover the Infested, a zerg-like swarm of nasty biological creatures that, well, infest and destroy. You don’t need a lot of motivation to fight these things.

Then we get to the rest of the game’s story. First off, it’s hard to figure out how to even experience it, or in what order. There are questlines on the Market, blueprints that, once completed, unlock a questline for you to do that fills you in on some kind of story or another. Many of these are tied to warframes, so in addition to getting some story you also get to find and build a new frame for yourself. Doing “The Limbo Theorem” gave me a good insight into the original owner of the Limbo warframe, and by association a somewhat better understanding of the concept of the warframe in general, and why I can hop between these biotechnological suits.

There are also deeply hidden quests. One quest I found by scanning a random drone in a mission I was doing, only to later discover that by scanning it I’d unlocked a quest. I have no real idea where this quest is going, or even what it’s about. I haven’t delved into it yet, but I’m intrigued at digging up more (probably literally, the Limbo Theorem involved a lot of excavations).


On the other hand, there’s Alad V. Alad V is a boss on Jupiter. Like many bosses, he’s got something of a personality and taunts you (creepily) as you approach him in his boss level. Bosses’ stories tend to be contained to the boss levels on each planet, so you don’t get a lot of lead-in, but you gather relatively quickly that Alad V is some kind of mad scientist and wants to test some kind of new creation on you. You defeat him, like you do, and like many bosses he doesn’t show up again. Except he does. When I logged in for the new event today, I was greeted by a face I didn’t immediately recognize, telling me he was “calling in his favor”.

It was apparently Alad V, that guy I fought on Jupiter, and I have no idea what he’s talking about. I don’t know why he’s alive, I don’t know why I’m doing missions for him, I don’t know why I apparently owe him a favor, and I certainly don’t know where to even look for the story I missed in the process. If this event is more story, I’m forced to wonder if there’s more story in events that have already passed, that I know nothing about and may be referenced by future events.

I’m not inherently bothered by this, honestly. I like the idea of a game with history, where events move forward and past events change things but aren’t repeatable. What I don’t like is the game assuming I know what it’s talking about when even a basic check on my completed-mission flags would make it blatantly obvious that I have no clue. If this quest had started with a message from the Lotus telling me that she owes this Alad V guy a favor, and that she needed my help with it, I’d be more on board. There could easily have been an event that explained in great detail why the Lotus owes Alad V a favor, possibly due to player actions during that event, but I don’t need to know that for her request to make sense as a new player.



Even the existing message followed by a quick flag-check that triggered a message from the Lotus saying “That was confusing, let me try to help, I’m going to upload some dossiers to your Codex for you to look over and make sense of that” would help a lot and make sense, AND drive me to look at my Codex to figure out story stuff I might be missing. Even if the message was jarring, I’d at least be able to quickly and concisely catch up to a point where it did make sense, kind of like a comic book recap.

Instead, I have a guy calling in his favor out of the blue, and the only time I’ve seen this guy is when I was shooting him in the face as he tried to test his death robot on me. I’m not really inclined to give him the time of day, much less do work for him. I’m gamely playing along because it’s an Event, and events have neat missions and cool loot, but I don’t have much of a narrative motivation; indeed, I have the opposite of this. The event’s story revolves around powerful assassins hunting Alad V, and me going to help him with that, and I really don’t know why I’m not on the side of the assassins with this one.

To their credit, the assassins also don’t seem to know why I’m not on their side. Luckily they don’t seem to harbor much ill will towards me for it, more pity than malice.


When Warframe tells a coherent story, I’m interested in it and I like following along; it makes me better understand the game’s setting and I find the setting interesting. I just wish I knew how to get it to present its story to me in a more directed, coherent way, or at least how to know what story bits to do next, and where to find them.

Aggrochat Games of the Year 2015

This week’s podcast was centered around our games of the year this year. We talked about a bunch of games, and if you have the time to listen, I think it’s a good show. I go off on a bit of a tangent once or twice, hopefully it doesn’t detract too much from the show!


Picking my games of the year is a bit weird for me this year. I didn’t play very many games by my usual standards, and it’s gotten me thinking about how I interact with video games. Since I landed my first job as a game designer, I made it a point to own every console and play every major release– every game people were talking about whether I was interested in it or not. I’d usually play eight or nine new major titles a month for the entire year, and as indie games got more numerous and relevant, I played a ton of those as well.

In 2012, I paid for 418 games and expansions, counting content DLC but not cosmetic or unlock purchases. I know this because I itemized them all on my taxes. I knew I had the number, and I looked it up, but I couldn’t even start to tell you what most of those games were. I’d be hard pressed to name a game that I knew for certain came out in 2012, but I almost certainly played it. A cursory google search for “game of the year 2012” brings up a slew of titles, and seeing the names I can say with certainty that I played every single one.

What I do remember was a conversation about games of the year in 2012, and I remember being able to deconstruct nearly every game I played into tiny pieces that I evaluated. The thing is, I don’t know if I really enjoyed them. I played so many games that I barely had time to process them, much less take the time to have fun with them. I played games like it was my job, because I believed it was. I was (and to some extent still am) of the opinion that a good game designer should have experience with as many games as possible, and be able to talk intelligently and at length about pretty much any major release.

In forcing myself to play a lot of games I wasn’t interested in, I found out that I really liked a bunch of kinds of games that I never thought I’d enjoy. It broadened my horizons a lot, and while there are still genres that aren’t my thing, even those usually have a handful of games that I really like. I can also cross-reference games– seeing what a fighting game does with animations and frame pauses suggests to me how to make floaty-feeling hits in MMOs feel more solid and satisfying.

This past year, I enjoyed far more games than I think I did in previous years, despite playing a fraction of what I usually played. I skipped a lot of the big releases this year, and spent the time on games I was interested in. It was refreshing, honestly, but I miss the feeling of being connected to the overall gaming sphere, knowing what’s good, what’s overrated, and what’s a sleeper hit.

I’m probably going to play a lot more games this year, try to catch up on the big stuff I missed, but I’m going to try to find a happy medium between the utter deluge of games I’ve forced myself to play in the past and the trickle of niche titles.

A couple of friends have, at various times, commented that they feel like they should jump on a game that “everyone’s playing” just because it’s the thing in the moment. I’d say play games that are fun for you right now, if you’re playing games for fun. I don’t always play games for fun, sometimes I play them for work, sometimes I play them to hang out with people, and I think they’re all valid reasons to play a game, but it’s nice to know which one(s) I’m choosing.

Play what you want to, not what “everyone” thinks you should. Only do that latter thing if you have a good reason.

Playing for Breadth

I’ve been playing Warframe with a bunch of friends lately, and it’s been interesting to me to see how each of us has approached the game. While not open-world, it’s nonetheless a very open game as far as experience goes, and you can work towards various things and move various directions, none of which appear to be wasteful. You can focus on frames, mods, weapons, research, pets, and all sorts of other things that take time and resources to work towards.


Playing with my friends, I’ve been fascinated at the differences in what motivates me versus what seems to motivate others. Bel, for example, has been playing Excalibur and seems to prefer it to the point of playing it nearly exclusively. I get the impression he’s going for total mastery of Excalibur and leaving other frames for other people. Ash has a handful of weapons and frames, but virtually everything he’s got is max rank– he picks a new thing and deep-dives until he understands it thoroughly, then moves on. I, on the other hand, have gone for breadth. I’ve got 12 Warframes, with 3 more building as of the time of this post. It’s about double what anyone else in the clan has, but I also have far fewer maxed out frames and weapons.

I do the same kind of thing in Infinity. I don’t have a full collection of any of the factions I play, but I play nearly every faction in the game to some extent– enough to know what they do and how to pull it off, even if I’m not an expert at it. I play a different list that’s doing a different thing every time I play, often flitting between factions and playstyles extremely rapidly. When I start a new faction in Infinity, or a new Warframe, I generally try to pair it with an entire new suite of weapons. It varies my playstyle as much as possible from the get-go, showing me how different the game can get from what I was previously doing.


I admire the folks who pick a single class, a single weapon, or a single playstyle and play it to the exclusion of all else until they’ve mastered it completely. It’s not for me. I generally favor seeing the game as a whole, which tends to mean that I rarely master any one thing, but I’m capable with a huge variety. In World of Warcraft, most people knew me as a Rogue player. I was a fairly capable Rogue, but I knew people who’d put in the effort to master the class; I picked a niche that I could fill and stuck with it. What I did know, however, was how Mages, Hunters, DPS Warriors, Priests, Druids, and Warlocks worked, and actively worked on understanding Paladins and even Shaman, despite us playing Alliance. When Death Knights came out, I switched pretty much full time to that class, and the Monk was the only reason I resubscribed for that expansion.

For me, seeing the entire game is my motivation. I want to know about the secrets, and the different approaches that most people don’t realize. It’s the high-level strategist in me; it’s not enough for me to know the ins and outs of one particular approach, I want to know how that approach stacks up against another one, what the pros and cons are, and how I’d work them together. Being stuck playing only one thing bores me; my excitement about Infinity is because compared to other games, I can try every faction. I could never really do that in Warmachine, and the concept is laughable in a game like 40k, where you’re looking at an $800-$1000 investment just to start your first army. With that kind of investment in Infinity, I could put together workable list pairings for four or five factions at least. That’s super compelling to me.


I think this motivation is a big part of what makes me a good designer– I want to build things with lots of approaches and let players pick the one they like best. When I write tabletop campaigns, I like to imagine all the twists and turns my players might go down, and I write them out at least enough to entertain them as ideas. I’m thrilled when I’m presented (as I was in a recent session) with a situation I didn’t predict, because that’s another twist to explore and one I didn’t think of. When I’m designing scenarios in video games, or talking about how to build things, I like to know as much about what options are available so that I can make informed comments– a boss that is flatly immune to fire damage is not a great idea, no matter how much the story supports it, if a primary path a player might take involves dealing fire damage to the exclusion of all else… unless I’m trying to encourage some other kind of thing.

This extends to other parts of my life, too. I like to pick up new skills as much as possible, and try lots of new things. There’s an immensely broad world out there, and I want to understand as much of it as I can, even if it’s unrealistic to experience it all personally. I love change, because change is something new to try out, like that new faction or new warframe. It’s what keeps me going.

What motivates you in a new game? Is it different from what motivates you outside of the game?