Monthly Archives: November 2009

I am a Browncoat.

Copied from my journal from September 20th 2002.

Firefly, my new replacement for Buffy, is not Whedon’s best work. To be honest it was confusing, jumbled, and how the hell did the chick get out of the box? I feel like I missed something. Is this even the first episode? I am sure I didn’t miss one… but, it feels wrong somehow. The only redeemable part is when this dude gets kicked into the atmospheric engine. (Though oddly this doesn’t seem to hurt the engine at all.) Other than that the show is a confusing wash of characters and actors I don’t know why I should care about. I kind of like Kaylee. And River (the girl in the box) is delightfully weird. Ah well. I suppose I will keep watching it if Ben does. Also I hate the theme song.

I cannot even begin to describe the hilarity of my review of Train Job, the first episode aired on TV for Firefly. To be fair, it was in fact a replacement episode written in a weekend to replace Serenity, the true first episode. After weeks of commercials showing the girl in the box I was curious about her and here came the first episode and she isn’t in the box. I was less than impressed. If not for a dearth of other programming to watch during my college time I am sure I would not have continued. But there wasn’t anything better to do on a Friday night in a dry county so I kept watching. As each episode progressed I came to care for the characters and truly enjoy the show. Right about the time I felt it was good enough to encourage my family and friends to watch it, it was canceled.

I have trouble letting go. I started participating in letter writing campaigns and massive Internet petitions. Once the show came out on DVD, I purchased it on day one, then proceeded to purchase a half dozen other copies for friends and my mother. No one I convinced to watch Firefly thought it was a bad show and many of them became fans just like I was. About this time Universal was rumored to be thinking of making a movie. It was gas to the fire of my fandom. I emailed Universal insisting that if they made a Firefly movie, not only would I see it in theatres at least 3 times, but I would also buy the DVD the day it came out in stores. I am pleased to say I kept both promises.

I was quite lucky. Universal did 3 rounds of pre-screenings of Serenity. The third round included a showing in my hometown. I missed the ticket sales, but a Firefly fan in AL had purchased tickets he could no longer use and I got them. My mother, brother and I showed up for the 10pm showing at 6pm, and started the line for the movie. Needless to say, we were *quite* excited. We had even made t-shirts, with the Serenity logo on the front and River quotes on the back. It was June 23, and Joss Whedon’s birthday, so we all signed one of those huge cards to send to him.

That fall when the movie came out I went to a midnight screening. And then again the next day. And then again the next weekend. I bought the shirt Hot Topic sold. I bought everything with Firefly on it.

Once it came out on DVD I not only bought it, but I also purchased the UMD copy, and the HDDVD versions, despite not having either player. I bought the toys, I bought the shirts, I bought the posters. I tried to vote with my wallet as loudly as I could. I loved Firefly and desperately wanted it back.

To this day I buy shiny new Firefly things that come out. I buy the shirts, books, comics, figures, ornaments… I buy each new version of the DVDs. Even the bluray ones, without having a bluray player.

While in grad school I built a level in Quake 4 that was a modified Serenity. The sheer number of phone interviews I have gotten off of that one piece of work is amazing. The number of times Serenity and Firefly come up in interviews and at work is unbelievable.

I love Firefly, and believe it may in fact be Joss’ greatest work.

Joss Whedon is my…

I first knowingly encountered Joss Whedon as a young high school student through my best friend. She introduced me to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and after a few episodes I was hopelessly hooked. The funny thing is, I didn’t even have cable, so she would record it on Tuesday night and I would watch it Wednesday when she brought me the VHS tape.
By the end, I was still a fan, but the many twists and turns along the way had made me quite a bit less rabid than the beginning. (Dawn, Xander and Anya, Potential slayers…) I felt that there was a great deal of good, but in the end, not enough to make me want the show to keep going.
As part of Buffy ending I prepared by moving to Joss Whedon’s new show, Firefly.
To say I was a Firefly fan would be an understatement in the extreme. I should take time to tell that whole story, but for now, let’s just leave it at that.
I was of course crushed when Firefly was canceled and couldn’t believe they would do that to my favorite show.
Years later I decided to fill the void with Joss‘ new show, Dollhouse. It looked interesting and had a ton of Battlestar Galactica alums in addition to the usual Whedon group. The first episode left me… unsatisfied. But I persevered. After all, Joss Whedon was my Master Now. Also, I wasn’t exactly impressed with Firefly when I first started watching. After a season I was left with the feeling that I had fallen out of love with Whedon.
Don’t get me wrong. Firefly is still the best tv show I have ever seen. But Whedon is no Pixar. he is able to miss. And miss he did with Dollhouse. I have no idea if it is the fact that the side characters are more interesting that the main one, the premise, or even just the fact that the main story arc could never truly arc because the main character’s mind kept getting wiped… But the show did not hold me. Oh there were good parts. And Epitaph was far and away one of the most interesting pieces of television I have seen in years. But unlike Firefly, this show didn’t grow on me. Even when talking to others I was lukewarm in my support of Dollhouse.
I can’t help but shake the feeling that I have betrayed my fandom though. Is this how Star Trek fans who hated TNG felt? Is this how fans of TNG felt about Voyager and DS9? Suddenly I remember the feeling I walked away from episode 1 with. While Dollhouse is nowhere near the betrayal that was, it still has the same feeling. Why Joss would you take such a wonderful idea and drag it into the ground? Why would you trust it to Fox of all stations?

Why are you not still fighting for Firefly, a far superior show in every form and fashion? You were once my Master… but I am beginning to lose faith.

Paying to Play

I have odd views on paying for games. It probably spawns from the fact I am a game developer. I make a living creating these games and as such, I see the purchase and acquisition of games a bit differently than most. For example, I don’t buy used games unless the game is no longer availible new. Why? Because I would rather pay 5 dollars more and know my money goes to the developers of the game instead of the suits at Gamestop. I am also aware that games are not made to be art, challenging, for fans, or even for fun, but rather to make money. It is one of the soul crushing truths reinforced time and time again at the Guildhall. You are making a commercial product and its sales directly affect your future with the company.

I am very diligent about making my love and support known for a game with my wallet. I own at least 4 separate copies of Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time. I own 2 copies of KotoR and Morrowind. I own no less than 4 copies of Bioshock. Why would I do this? Various reasons, many are on different consoles, or different versions of the same game. But more importantly, because I want sequels. I want similar gameplay to these games. I want publishers to know that I, as a gamer, am a fan of these games and am perfectly willing to put my money where my mouth is. So when a game comes out I want/like/love I buy it. Immeditialy, and occasionally a few copies to give away. I tell others to support game developers by buying the game.

But this truly only applies to standard games, console and pc, game where you buy the game and you are done. Now we are deeply into the world where Downloadable Content and Premium Content is easily added to games and they ask for additional purchases. In my opinion, DLC and Premium are both good things. Additions to games that I have already purchased and loved, a way of extending my gameplay. Now having said that, I do not expect to pay 1/6th of the cost of a game for 1/12th the content I got with the original game. Also as a developer I have been in meetings where we discuss DLC and people actually say something to the effect of “Let’s hold that really cool thing back and make it DLC.” I usually get into a shouting match with that person. Planning DLC into your game is a good thing. Planning additional levels, items, etc, for your game is good. Gimping your original release to sell DLC – should earn you a place in the special hell. Exclusives are annoying to my collectible side, and DLCcan be used quite effectively to make people like me feel better.

For MMOs a subscription model has become standard. Every 6 months I pony up my 78 dollars to Blizzard for both my accounts. I pay it because I feel the game is worth it. I am also aware that Blizzard as a development studio is *not* pocketing the 150million+ in subs every month, but rather that their publisher, Activision is. Most other MMOs will get my money for a month, maybe two, but after that, it is no longer worth it for me to pay by the month to keep playing. Some complain about the initial game cost (50 dollars) and then having to pay the $15 subscription on top. To be fair, you are paying for the 3-5 year development time, and recouping losses from people who will only play the first month. And you usually get the first month free, so really you are only paying $35 for the game, a bargain in this day and age.

Many people point to the Free-mium model as a great way to make money, and it is. I dislike this model because usually they charge you far *more* than a subscription for much less. And the game is inherently broken into chunks and you have to pay for each chunk or you are missing a large portion of the game. Plus the spoils go to whoever has the most money to throw at the game. Great for making money, but seemly at the cost of your soul.

The brouhaha began Wednesday when Blizzard offered, for the first time, a direct purchase of an in game item from the Blizzard Store, for real money. And suddenly the community began to scream from the top of their lungs. How dare Blizzard add micro transactions to a game we already pay a subscription for! How dare they make us pay for content twice! *grabs pitchfork* Or so they said. I was too busy typing in my credit card number. Then I was too busy /bowing to my newest mini-pet to watch him bow back. The next day I responded to this post on WoWHead with an affirmative Yes, I would buy pets from Blizzard, but only because they didn’t have a I already bought them option.

First, my point of view on Blizzard selling pets independent of the game -> I heartily approve of this instead of the alternatives. Non-combat pets do not add anything to actual gameplay and are just to follow the player around and look cute. All other non-combat pets are acquired through rep grinds, farming, purchase (easy), or the TCG loot cards. First off, I despise grinding reputation to begin with. Being forced to grind a reputation *just* for a pet is irritating. Farming, the repeated running of the same old thing waiting on the RNG to show you some love… well, I hate it even more than rep grinding. At least rep grinding has a hard cap. Mr. Pinchy, Disgusting Oozling, Whelplings, Firefly, and Phoenix, and many others besides, all take killing the same mobs, running the same instances over and over can over again, hoping they drop. Most give you nothing to make up for the time spent either. Some require dungeons you can’t solo. Would I rather farm Magister’s Terrace trying to get my Phoenix or just pay 10 bucks? WHERE DO I GIVE MY INFO?!? TCG cards are a “form” of paying someone else for a Mini-Pet instead of Blizzard. I pay Upper Deck how much to try and get a Hippogryph? And in the end I pay Joe Blow in Ohio 50 bucks for ONE of said mini-pet. The ones Blizzard sells I get on every single character across the account! Yes please.

Now, having said that, I really only feel this way because it is a mini-pet. Mounts, tabards, standard outfits with no stats, and flavor items, all are legit items for Blizzard to sell. They don’t change the game. You aren’t “progressing” any by having these items. If Blizzard tried to sell heirloom gear or tier gear, I would be right there on the third option of “This is the third sign of the apocalypse.” For people who argue and say “I already paid for content” I must point out, you did. And you got a ton of it. In the scheme of things you can get over 100 mini-pets *without* ever buying one. 100. You aren’t getting robbed on content. You have 100 other mini-pets to choose from, many who are cute and lovable just like these guys. Now if they released a dungeon and asked you to pay for it, yeah, I get that as a point of contention, that is gameplay. This is frivolous fluff!

I do think it is interesting that a third of the respondents said they *would* buy mini-pets from the store. If a third of the population of WoW buys said pets, I am sure we can expect this to become a big part of the game. I do get a third of the people saying they wouldn’t. I know people who hate mini-pets. They think they are a waste of space and polys on screen. I also think these are people who steal candy from babies.

Regardless, as always, I voted with my wallet. And thus I get to /bow to my Pandaren and watch my KT zot critters.

Persona 4

Persona 4 is a third person game developed by Atlus. Notice how I leave out what kind of game it is? Well that’s the best part of Persona 4. It is a weird amalgamation of games. Imagine if an anime movie mated with a dating/friendship sim, then picked up some Pokemon, and threw in some dungeon crawling rpgness for good measure. Then you are beginning to scratch the surface of what kind of game Persona 4 is.

You step into the shoes of the main character, a young male going to live with his uncle for a year. There are unexplained things afoot and you become one of the Scooby Gang trying to discover the culprit. The story progresses from there, and for the most part I will try not to spoil it, but needless to say the twists and turns will leave you constantly thinking, just one more day…

The game progression is based on a calendar year. Each action you do takes a block of time in the game and when the time passes, it becomes a new day. Actions are tied to certain times of the day and are usually mutually exclusive. The Early Morning block is usually filled with school, or cut scenes setting up story. The Afternoon Block is your own. You can run around an talk to people, but must decide to either work on your social links or enter the dungeons.

Social Links are exactly what they sound like. They are the rating given to your social connections with other characters in the game. Each major character is associated with a Tarot figure and you have to try to build them up to level 10, the max social link. Fortunately this time is not wasted as the stronger a social link is, the better the bonuses in the dungeon for it are. This is the dating sim part of the game.

Dungeons are worlds of nightmare and shadow you enter to save your friends and combat the darkness creeping into your own world. In dungeons you collect persona, all taken from folklore and myth, then you can blend and level these persona and use them in battle. This is very much the Pokemon part of Persona 4 and is not only complex but endlessly engaging as you get new Persona and out grow old favorites.

I, as a level designer, categorically disagree with procedurally generated play spaces. Too often they create confusion and jogging simulators (where you spend a great deal of time running doing nothing). Persona 4 has a majority of procedurally generated dungeons, and while they are not great, they are better than most. But unlike most games dungeons in Persona 4 seem to be focused on single run experiences. The most effective way to progress is to clear a dungeon in one night then come back and clear all of them in a row when you have quests and need for more persona. The cut scenes and encounters are all setup as if they happen in a single night. The lore of the dream world even supports the random shifts in the layouts and levels of the dungeons. It isn’t great, but it doesn’t impede the gameplay.

The largest fault I can find with Persona 4 is the cultural adaptation. When many of your social link progression matters on choosing the “correct” answer it makes it difficult as an American determining what the correct answer is. Many of the correct choices seemed needlessly harsh or mean to me. Or I will be give three options that all mean the same thing to me. The indication that you chose the correct choice is shown by music notes above your character’s head. It almost enforces the save, then test, and take notes so you can reload and re-do with the best options, gameplay. Which is bad.

Persona 4 is a great step into a strange and unique style of game long popular in Japan, but not as much here in America. There are 3 preceding Personas but all have inherent design problems that were fixed for this game making it quite a bit better and cohesive.

Novel November

Personally I have never heard of Novel November before this year. It is a new concept for me. Writing a Novel in a month. Of course the definition of novel in this instance is 50,000 words. People have asked if I am participating.

Currently my life revolves around work and the crunch period we are in, but even so, should I participate in an arbitrary contest and line? Does 50,000 words make a novel?

An article discussing the spirit of the exercise said it was about quantity, not quality. Don’t edit, don’t research just write. In retrospect one of the things that hangs me up most often when writing is dealing with simple things that I have to research and determine the “correct” answer for. It bogs me down and slowly I lose focus until the story is lost. In that respect it seems to me that Novel November is perfect for me. Perhaps I should, just to force myself to write differently. I write this blog after all to flex my creative muscle and write things down. Is this not the same?

But does quantity, even in this instance trump quality? Is a sentence a collection of words? Is a novel a collection of 50,000 words that have some reason for being together? Or is a novel an experience better planned and organized? Perhaps it should be called Novel Rough Draft November, then Editing December.

The Gathering Storm: My thoughts

I finished The Gathering Storm on Thursday and after a few days of reflection I wanted to express my feelings and thoughts on the book. First off, there are going to be spoilers. If you haven’t finished, stop reading this and go finish first. Second, I liked it. Truly there is no replacement for RJ, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think someone, specifically Brandon Sanderson, can do it well.

I dove into the book with enthusiasm and excitement. I am willing to admit this may have colored my view, but I can honestly say the opening scene brought tears to my eyes. It didn’t have anything to do with the main characters. It didn’t have anything to do with minor characters, but it was poignant. These common people had every reason to ignore the events, or even run away from them. But instead they turned and faced the fight that was coming. This is the theme of Book 12 that echoes in every chapter and every character. They all stop running. They all stop scheming. They feel the weight of the Last Battle baring down on them. They turn and face their destiny and do what they must.

For the first time in several books the story spends a majority of its time on Rand. Many have complained that Rand was “too dark” in this book. I must disagree. This is the first book I have felt Rand was finally beginning to show the true strain and stress that he feels, both in his heart and on his soul. For the first time in this series I felt like the Dark One might win. Not through outright battle, but because Rand was crossing the point where his “the ends justifies the means” would lead to his fall from grace. Ishmael was not called the Betrayer of Hope for a reason. And in this book Rand has lost hope. Why does his tavern power no longer balance the bad with good? Because Rand himself no longer balances his belief that the battle is good with the evil that chases him. He no longer sees the good in the world. I have a strong suspicion in the next book we will see Rand capitulating more. Bowing to Tuon, Egwene, Cadsuane, Elyane… He has finally come to the same conclusion Egwene did while she was being punished by Silviana. Her own pain and suffering is laughable when compared to the pain and suffering of the world. Who cares is she is beaten three times a day? Everyone should be far more concerned that the Last Battle is coming and taking time out to quibble over punishments or who is higher rank than who is just absurd. If it took the Lews Therin side of him realizing that Ilyena might not be dead yet in this age and he needs to protect her, then I say it is about time. It seems so obvious to us that Min, Elayne, and Aviendha are the “three who are one” of Ilyena.

A goodly portion of the rest of the book revolves around Egwene and the White Tower. Talk about exciting! With each page Egwene strips power away from Elaida and convinces the Ajahs to support her. One of my favorite, mildly over looked points, was the fact that each Ajah attempts to convince Egwene to join them (excepting Red and Blue, for obvious reasons), once she is raised to Aes Sedai. What a stroke of genius! The Amyrlin should be of all Ajahs and yet none. Egwene was never a part of an Ajah, and yet, they all view her as one of them. Add this to the other events, including her Dream being so shocking proven true, and the use of Verin Sedai’s work. I will never forget that chapter beginning with Egwene considering the stilling and execution of the Black Sisters in the Rebel Camp. What a blow to deal the shadow at this late hour! What an event! With so few words, Sanderson slams home the truth that no darkfriends will be allowed to survive. Suddenly the Rebel Aes Sedai are sure of two things. They can at least trust all of them are not dark friends and that there are yet dark friends in the tower. This gives them power and strength. They are all on the same side and have removed the worms eating at their core.

The deaths of two Forsaken are handled almost carelessly. The use of the True Source during one of these all but ensures that the Dark One really doesn’t care if his Chosen are lost. He can get new Chosen, perhaps ones that aren’t as arrogant or foolish. The strength of the writing for the scene where Semirhage is broken… I could *feel* the shame and embarrassment Semirhage felt. Mother’s warned their children using her name for thousands of years and here, an upstart nobody with a tenth of the power, turned her over a knee and spanked her like a child, in front of a child! In an instant Semirhage lost all her power to Cadsuane. Imagine being known as the Aes Sedai who punished one of the Forsaken! As if her legend needed more ammunition.

While reading the book, I had several moments where a character would say or do something (usually say something) and I would laugh aloud. The snarky response or odd comment bringing the humor to the fore. In these moments I truly felt the difference between RJ and BS. RJ always kept a sense of decorum for his characters. They were never snarky or sarcastic, even when they had right to be, or should be. His dialog always came off as strong or angry. I was jarred from the story by this uncharacteristic depth to our beloved characters, but oddly, it wasn’t followed by the feeling that they *shouldn’t* be this way, but rather that they hadn’t before!

My second complaint is the omission of several characters. I realize that this is directly contradictory to my happiness with focus on Rand and Egwene, but to omit Lan, Elayne, and Birgitte entirely, not to mention secondary characters like Taim, Loial, Galad, and the other Forsaken? I can only hope this means they have stronger parts in the next book. I will wait until then to truely decide if this was a negative for this book.

Finally, and this is truly my complaint, some things were too “neat.” I know, I shouldn’t complain too loudly. We were given answers to so many questions. Is Verin Black or Brown? What is with the “too young” Sitters? What will happen with Siuan and Gaerth? What about Gawyn? Literally dozens of conspiracy theories and sub plots were resolved in this book. But many of them were neat, clean, concise and practically tied with a bow. As if the author frequented theory boards and thus knew exactly every point that needed to be addressed to resolve them without quibble or qualm. Which is likely. And while I am pleased to be right on all accounts that I argued… I sometimes wonder… is this the “truth” as RJ saw it?

At the end of the day, I do not care. Having an answer printed in black and white is good enough to let me sleep at night, not always wondering what could have been. Minor issues aside, I am pleased with the book, and with Brandon Sanderson’s writing as a whole. Long Live the Dragon.

Rule #2: Double Tap

According to the folks at WoW.com it has been one year since the Scourge Invasion. This time last year, the denizens of Azeroth got to experience World War Z in it’s least destructive form.

But to truly discuss what happened, we have to step back even further, to the introduction of Zul Gurub, better known as ZG. ZG was a new raid instance for max level characters. It revolves around trolls attempting to call up Hakkar, an evil god and bring him into life in Azeroth and essentially take over the world. Heroes had to go in, kill his followers and eventually kill him as well. Part of the final battle was a disease, called Corrupted Blood, that would inflict a few hundred damage on the carrier and pass it over to others standing nearby. This made for an exciting and challenging boss battle. But then something happened that the designers at Blizzard did not intend. The pets, minions of the Hunters and Warlocks, could also get Corrupted Blood, but unlike players, they could be dismissed, banished to a place where their state is saved and any diseases on the pet is retained, timers paused, until at such a time as they are called forth by their masters again. In places like Ironforge. Ironforge, that was filled with hundreds of lower level characters that could not survive the several hundred points of damage each second inflicted by the disease.

Within hours the major cities were covered in skeletons. The game ground to a halt as GMs worked feverishly to cleanse the disease from players. Oddly, the events made national news, drawing the attention of the CDC, who suddenly became very interested in the possibility of studying the effects of an outbreak without needing to deal with it. Strangely, the virtual world mirrored the real one in the fact that people reacted in similar manners to this threat. Some hid, running to the far corners of Azeroth, hiding from any player who might have the disease. Many flocked to the cities, to join in the revelry, especially those of a high enough level to withstand the disease, they came to watch the “show”. The unscrupulous intentionally went and contracted the disease to bring it back to uninfected locals and spread it around, gleefully watching their fellow adventurers die.

In the end it took a hotfix and dozens of server resets to purge the disease. But the memory lived on. Many players, even those inconvenienced by the plague, looked back and remembered the sheer terror and fun that had reigned those few days. So of course, when planning what Arthas would do to usher in the age of the Lich King, what else but a controlled, planned version of the Corrupted Blood Plague?

The Zombie Invasion was brilliantly planned. The first day there were just a few crates in the neutral cities and if you did get infected you had 10 minutes to cleanse it off. The second day there were crates in the major cities and plagued critters in the neutral cities but now the plague only took 5 minutes to turn you into a brain hungry zombie. By the third day there were few places in Azeroth without Zombies and if you were infected you had a minute to get it off, before you would change and become one of Them.

When it first started I sought out a crate, then turned back to my city to create more zombies. It was sadly unfulfilling. There was too great a chance of it getting cleansed. Other people were able to kill me too easily. In short, not that much fun.

By the second day however, it was much much easier. Suddenly there were dozens of zombies instead of a handful. Enough of the ground cover to keep us alive. Enough of us to nom someone to death quickly. While alive, I fought the good fight. I tried to kill zombies, I cleansed the disease, I healed those fighting the horde. But once I died… Oh, you wouldn’t heal me? NOM. You! You undercut my auctions! NOM. Idiot who always spams trade??? NOM NOM NOM. the sweetest revenge in a horde of not so mindless zombies. By the third day, all semblance of the game had broken down. It was a challenge to find someone *alive* much less do anything once you found them. Needless to say, I was not helping matters any at this point. I lurked near common log-in locations, leaping on the fresh meat as it appeared. We formed a massive raid and stormed Stormwind, killing NPCs and players indiscriminately.

There are some who look back at WWZ as a time of griefing, bad gameplay, and are still annoyed at the loss of time. I look back and think, I was a part of something amazing. I remember this historic event. Say what you will, but I was *there*. Four days of normal ho hum grinding traded for days of excitement, uncertainty and memories I fondly look back on a year later? Can I remember what I was doing two weeks before the WWZ? Of course not. But I remember this week with clarity.

I can only hope the Cataclysm event is as much fun.