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Real Games Have Curves

Real Games Have Curves

Games are hard. It’s part of their allure. We like to have a feeling of accomplishment in our games through learning and application. What I think we generally don’t like is to be beaten about the head the moment we set foot in the door. Not only is it humiliating, but it’s also discouraging when we don’t feel that we’re given the chance to get our feet wet without having to drown ourselves first.

The usual method is to introduce the player to just a little bit, maybe through a tutorial. Then, as they move through the game, add more mechanics until the player reaches the point where the system has shown them all the mechanics that the she needs to know. It’s at that point where the player transitions from the learning phase to the practical phase.

Some games are better than others at doing this. I personally think the mother of all accessibility is Blizzard, because their M.O. is to take an established genre and streamline it so that it’s stupidly easy to get into. They’re also really good at hand-holding until the player is ready to stop learning and start applying that knowledge.

There’s nothing wrong with making a game new player friendly when it comes to mechanics. Games are Big Business, after all, and the phrase “easy to learn, difficult to master” is a tried and true design passed down through the ages. But for that to apply, a game has to be easy to learn (or easy to get into), and then difficult to master, once the player understands the mechanics.

Which is why I’m sad when there are games that don’t seem to focus on the shepherding of new players through to the point where they’ll feel comfortable without the training wheels. Some of this is mechanical, like if a game doesn’t provide a decent tutorial, or a way to practice with or without other players. A lot of it falls on community management as well. We know that there are people out there who will take advantage of a situation for their own gain, whenever a situation presents itself. In games which fail to prepare new players to mingle with veteran players, or which don’t provide safeguards that allow new players to ease into the community, there’ll always be those players who beat on the new players, just because they can. I know that there are a lot of games out there that I’d love to play, but which I don’t feel provide the right style of environment that makes me want to keep playing, assuming I can get started at all. In most cases, it’s no big deal, but there are a few that make me sad because I’d really like to play.

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Playing Catch-Up

Playing Catch-Up

Last week was school vacation week, so the family and I were AFK (oddly enough, I was the only one without a laptop, armed only with my phone and my 3DS). Stuff happened during that time that seemed tailor made for blogging, so in the absence of anything else I want to talk about today, let’s set the time machine to one week ago to find a dead horse to beat.

Paid Mods And Crowd Control

I’m old, and I remember the days when modding was something people hacked into games, long before it was officially a cottage industry of hyper-interested creatives working to extend the games they loved beyond normal lifespans.

Valve (aka Vader) and Bethesda (aka Palpatine) launched the idea of allowing mod users to charge for their mods. It went over as well as could be expected: People tried putting price tags on their mods, there were some contentious issues of “ownership”, and the population revolted. Valve offered a mea culpa and rolled it back.

Creative people regularly get the shaft when it comes to earning money from their trade. I think we’ve all seen reports of artists of all kinds who have their work used without permission or even attribution — and certainly without remuneration. It’s often like artists need to have a legal attack-dog on retainer before they can even think of producing content if they’re doing it for reasons beyond “because they love doing it”.

That’s the thing about mods: they started out as thing that brought us to this point because “people loved doing it”. I’m certainly not one to deny people trying to make a living, or to get some recompense from their hard work, but modding (to me, at least) has been about doing something you love doing for the sake of doing it. At the most, modders accepted “donations” because why not? Those who can, do. Those who cannot are not denied the work that was made to be seen and had and used.

Valve and Bethesda wanted another revenue stream, and since modding has been making a come-back and was an otherwise untapped potential, it made sense that it might be a good place to harvest some dollars. The 40/35/25 Bethesda/Valve/person who did all the work split shows where Valve and Bethesda believed the credit should be due. It was never about paying modders;  Valve and Bethesda just couldn’t find a way to sell it at 50/50/0 and expect it to even have a chance on the street.

Some folks will say that creatives should be paid 100% of the time. OK, sure, but we’ve reached this point on the back of that not being historically the case. Why now? “Because they could” is the only option I can think of. What’s worse is that while many would argue that modders should be able to charge for their work, I think it’s putting too much credit into the hands of people who potentially have zero baselines for what their work is worth beyond a thumbs up on their mod’s official page. Got a UI enhancement? How much is that worth? $0.99? $5.99? $29.99? How is the value calculated? Based on man-hours to produce, or based on popularity of the previously-free mod? And like home-made porn, just because you can doesn’t mean you should, which is not something the General Internet is good at recognizing. When the option to charge is on the table, there’s no good reason not to charge something. 

Although capitalism says that the market will shake out the crap, I think the community does this just fine without there being money involved. In fact, ask any App Store and it’ll tell you that allowing people to charge for stuff is not going to stop crap from showing up; it’ll just be crap that people have the balls to ask for payment on, and you’ll be surprised how many people happen to have those kinds of balls.

eSports Is A Thing Because Gaming Is A Thing

The world is no longer a place where people can assert that being a geek is something to be ashamed of. For the past three years running, geek-based properties have destroyed box offices. Sci-fi, fantasy, and superheroes have been hot properties in movies, books, and TV. It’s not uncommon for adults to have conversations at work about zombies or high-fantasy kingdoms, and kids are being strongly advised to read novels about young wizards and teenage archers who have to fight for their lives.

I grew up during a time when this was not so. Back then, Colin Cowherd’s now-anachronistic comments regarding ESPN’s decision to air the Heroes of the Storm championship were de rigeur. And in another parallel that should surprise no one who’s up to date with their stereotypes, those insults came from the same kind of people.

That’s why I can’t really get overly upset about this particular situation this time around. Cowherd is fulfilling his role as a sport-obsessed jock who’s picking on “helpless nerds” as if it’s the 1980s all over again. That his choice of phrasing seems tailored to generate controversy among a community who have a very thin skin to any insult from outside of it’s own ranks (especially when set to a “jocks versus nerds” soundtrack) makes the whole situation reek of attention-whoring. Yes, the irony is not lost on me that posts like this are exactly the results Cowherd’s rant were crafted to conceive.

I’m OK with that because I think that the world at large understands that no amount of sarcasm or bro-fisting bravado changes the fact that this is not the 1980s, and the world at-large is increasingly finding a wealth of excitement and entertainment that geeks have been privy to for decades. Simply put, Cowherd is trying to sound all tough-guy, but he’s ultimately out of touch with anyone who doesn’t already agree with him. Bold move, Cotton.

I am also OK with the idea of “eSports”, and I think that die-hard sports fans should be as well. Look at it this way: there’s no one sport. Every sport is played more or less differently, but there are common threads in that sports are competitive, are played by two or more teams or individuals, and that the “goal” is to best the other competitor by reaching the goal first, or to accumulate the most points before time runs out. This is why people consider golf as a sport; it really has nothing to do with physicality at all. It’s all about the competition. People seem really hung up on the idea that something needs to have people moving at high speeds, hitting harder, or throwing faster for something to be a sport; I say that those are just one facet of what a “sport” really is.

In an ironic twist, the similarities between those who bemoan the dilution of “sports” by broadcasting chess matches and spelling bees on channels normally reserved for football and basketball has eerie similarities to some of the arguments that gamers get into over what is and what isn’t a game — like mobile versus consoles versus PCs. We all think alike in many ways, it seems, and I’d be willing to bet that even if Colin Cowherd doesn’t watch Game of Thrones, a lot of his listeners do. I wonder how many of those listeners, then, realize that 30 years ago, they’d be considered geeks for bring into what they’re into today.

EDIT: Mr. Cowherd might want to check out #4 on this Cracked.com post, and realize that he’s not as secure in his segregation as he thinks he is.

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The Power Of Blogging

The Power Of Blogging

In all reality, I’m the last person you want to be taking advice from when it comes to blogging. Although in some respects, I am a good case study for what not to do when you sit down and decide that “Dammit! Today is the day that I will start a blog”.

Now, if you’re considering starting a blog, then there’s got to be two things about your situation that we can surmise. The first is that you read other people’s blogs. It’s not required; my feed-reader is admittedly sparsely populated, but certainly not empty. There are some blogs that I read because their authors inspire me through their writing, their subjects, and their philosophies. Chances are pretty good that you have a stable of blogs that you read that are driving you to consider taking up the electron quill yourself.

The second is that you feel that you want to speak to the public. Some would say that blogging stems from a desire to “say something”, but really if you just wanted to write down your thoughts, you could keep a journal at home and be done with it. Blogging is really about engagement with a community through a topic of your choice, and in a format that social media simply can’t handle. Think about all of the blogs you’ve personally commented on; that’s you right now. Now think about the process from the other side of that relationship; that’s you where you want to be by taking up the art of blogging.

In a way, blogging is about power. Not the “volcanic lair and Persian cat” kind of power, but the power of creation, of expression, community, and if you’re lucky, you get the bonus of influence. Those three elements are really what drive people to blog, and the bonus objective, I think, is a carrot for a lot of people.

One of the best parts of blogging for me is the act of setting up the blog itself. Sadly, in the age of mobile and tablets, a lot of the presence of a blog is lost, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter! First and foremost, a blog is your home. It’s where you feel comfortable, and like any home the design reflects who you are. People do come to the desktop version of the site, and a good first impression is always important, but ultimately it’s about exercising your creativity to make a space you’ll be proud to shop around.

Expressing yourself to the public is never easy, especially on the Internet. Blogging for friends is like having a conversation. Chances are you’re pretty comfortable with those people, and they know your mannerisms and idiosyncrasies. Blogging for acquaintances is a little tougher, because you might end up revealing parts of yourself that you hadn’t brought out before, for reasons. And blogging for total strangers…that’s tough. We’ve all been advised to “not read the comments”, and we all know that those kinds of people are just one keyword away from finding your blog. They could be insightful and thought provoking (which is gold for any blogger), or they could make you rue the day you decided to set out your own shingle.

The thing is, no blog blossoms right out of the gate. Like any garden, your blog will take time to grow, and part of that growth will require cultivation of your readers. Your titles and content will bring them in, but ultimately it’s your personality and your voice that will make people return. Over time, you’ll shed the haters and collect the people who matter. In essence, you’ll grow to inhabit your own corner of the community that you serve, and as a result your blog will gain momentum as it’s shared through social media, trackback links, and good old fashioned habit among regular visitors.

Conventional wisdom will tell you that you should write for yourself. Don’t go chasing delusions of grandeur because the minute you feel that goal slipping from your grasp you’re going to get discouraged and want to quit. Writing can be therapeutic, an exercise to improve your writing skills, and a great way to meet new people. But sometimes it happens that a blog takes off and starts getting a lot of regular readers. Maybe it’s referenced frequently in other blogs. Maybe you catch the eyes of people in the industry you’re writing about, and your popularity soars. What then? Great power, great responsibility and all that. Few bloggers are considered to be influential among their peers, and fewer still are considered to be influential within the industries they cover. If you ever find  yourself in that position, keep in mind that you’re writing out of love of the subject; you’re now part of it’s life support.

The ultimate payout is, like most any endeavor, based on what you put into it. Some days (maybe most days) you won’t like your writing, and that’ll discourage you. Some days you’ll see no traffic on posts you really loved, and that will discourage you. Some days you won’t be able to think of any topic that you want to spend time writing about, and that will discourage you.

Some days you’ll see a spike in traffic. Some days you’ll read back through your older posts and be astounded that you wrote the awesome posts that you’re reading. Some days you’ll get a lot of social media traction, pingbacks, and comments. Those days may be fewer than the days when it seems no one knows your blog exists, but the good days outweigh the bad by orders of magnitude. During those good times, don’t be afraid to get critical and analyze the differences between the high traffic posts and the low traffic posts. Don’t be afraid to break that fourth wall between creator and consumer for feedback about what readers like. Remember, you’re both providing a service, and putting yourself out there through engagement. Anything you can do to make the experience better for others and for yourself is a win-win situation.

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At The Speed of Blogging

At The Speed of Blogging

The content of a blog is important. Writing about a popular game will certainly get some Google results in front of eyeballs, and being a source of useful and insightful info on a game will help to get return readership. General blogs a a bit more tricky, as they tend to shotgun the author’s current interest onto the page, so a regular readership never knows what the topic-du-jour is going to be, whether it’s interesting to them, or something they really don’t care much about.

What’s also important is the delivery window, and that’s a question I have for people who read blogs: what day, time, and frequency is best for you?

Some people have amazing stamina that allows them to post excellent posts every day. Some people build up their momentum and unleash a torrent of verbiage when they’re fit to burst. Others are more casual, opting to produce content when the spirit moves them. I’m thinking of going back to my Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 10 AM EDT schedule which worked well for me, but for any blogger, it’s difficult to determine if their writing schedule is a good fit for a wide audience.

When do you read blogs? Do you keep an RSS feed, checked daily at a specific time (or multiple times per day)? Do you rely on notices in your social media stream to “remind you” to visit a blog? Do you block off some time during the day to make the rounds of the blogs you bookmark? And how often is too often, or how little is not often enough for your interests?

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