Burying the Lede

A new Jeff Vogel blog post is always something to consider. The latest digs into Pillars of Eternity as a foil for pointing out how useless facts, and exposition without context, essentially break a player’s flow by confusing and boring the player. 

Interesting and detailed read on that point. 

It’s also a case study in burying the lede. 

The real test of how good a game it is, is not how it sells, but how much its sequel sells

And…

Most games remain unfinished. But that still invites this question: If the vast majority of players didn’t want to experience the Pillars of Eternity they already paid for, why think that they will want to buy more?

Everyone should keep improving, if just for their survival in this mercilessly competitive business.

Those two points, had they come first, might well have gotten the point across without losing at least some readers by going into grinding (and valuable if motivated) detail about the Pillars of Eternity character creation process. 

Intentional?

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Books: February 2017

Ryan Holiday has a great monthly-ish reading list. If you don’t already subscribe, stop what you’re doing and click. I’m going to try to get at least one idea from each book down and link them between them in as interesting ways. Maybe helpful for you. Maybe not. Remembrance for future connectivity is the goal.

This month’s theme music: My Favorite Things by John Coltrane

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural by James Randi
First on Scott’s Persuasion Reading list, and a super quick read. People can believe anything. People can convince people of anything. Superstition is built into us at a foundational level which we simply can’t shake. Surely an examination of nearly anything on, say, Facebook would convince you of that, yet you simply don’t realize how much you accept on faith as well. Something things just flow in. It’s your job to police the filter, and toss out what should be in your brain. An easier task said than done.

They Got It Wrong: History: All the Facts that Turned Out to be Myths by Emma Marriot
Second on Scott’s list, and another quick read. As in the first, not hugely substantiated, but consistent with facts and direct experiences that I’ve had actually going to the places mentioned. Touchiest one was related to the Holocaust which broadens ones understanding of where, and at who’s hand, most Jews died. Historical stories are created out of whole cloth to convince people, not unlike superstitions.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
I’ve tried to read this book, and stopped several times. It’s brutal. The audiobook is the way to go. Primary Source account of concentration camps as a Jew from an astute observer. You simply cannot understand what the human organism is able to normalize until you make it through to the end of this book. A much more serious book than They Got It Wrong, which serves as an interesting contrast as events occur completely outside of Viktor Frankl’s sphere. That fact by no means diminishes either the historical facts (as much as history can be factual), nor Viktor Frankl’s experiences and insights. There’s more to this book and I need to work my way through it again.

God’s Debris: A Thought Experiment by Scott Adams
A record of a two conversations which, like links in a chain, drive home a series of thoughts about who we are as humans and where we’re going, even if we’re not paying attention to the fact that we’re moving at all. Fertile idea generator. As an example, here’s the one that’s stuck with me (and the riskiest of the lot): Religion is how we, as a species, program our System 1, while suppressing our System 2 as necessary, for the persistence of our tribe. When we choose a religion, even if it’s no-religion (i.e. atheism), that’s because our System 1 accepts it that programming, and rigs our System 2 to think it’s our own idea – our own “free will.”

The Way of Zen by Alan Watts
A subtle magic trick in the form of a historical expose of Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zen which, along the way, causes the listener to internalize precepts of Zen in ways. There’s persuasion going on here in a major way, but I doubt you’d register it. The only way I spotted it was to notice how my thoughts changed in response to events. Granted this is my third time through the work, and I doubt that the written version would have had any effect at all. Going deeper on the why of the Koan teaching strategy lead to the insight about God’s Debris above.

The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawne Coyne & Steven Pressfield
If you work with stories, this is a book for you. Full stop. As you read, read the other non-fiction books he references, in particular Story by Robert McKee. How to disassemble a story, look at the component pieces, and verify proper functioning. Highly analytical. A way to generate feedback about the quality of your work. Ideas connect with Mastery by Robert Greene. It’s an example of how to rigorously define compliance with, and aberration from, expectations and conventions of written stories. Greene uses John Coltrane’s jazz as an example, this is the analog for writing.

The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Five Novels and One Story by Douglas Adams
I finally get it. I don’t like this book. I understand why now. You see, it wasn’t written as a single work at a single time, instead it’s been reworked and rewritten at least six times, across many mediums, to the point where it no longer feels like a book to me. It’s meticulously crafted watch. Everything, absolutely everything, has been polished, stripped, and reworked to the point where the whole book ticks along with too much rigidity and perfection for me to find it funny and entertaining. There’s simply no surprise.

Going Rogue (Spells, Swords, & Stealth) (Volume 3) by Drew Hayes
This series hits it’s stride in book three. There’s three ensembles of actors in the story and the first two books in the series suffered, because the balance of focus wasn’t sufficient. Drew Hayes gets it right in this book. This was the first fictional work that I applied concpets from Story Grid to as I was reading. This is an example of where the first two books really do need to be reworked, as it’s a long slog for readers to get to this point and truly enjoy the aggregate work. The only reason why I made it as far as I did was because I used to DM Dungeons & Dragon games, not a large group of people, and a main character is a Dungeon Master.  Yeah, I know I just said what I said about Hitchhiker’s, so I suppose the trick is doing it in a less than perfect way.

Misc
Working my way back through Mastery by Robert Greene, and Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kehneman. I really do love re-reading books with complexity, because there’s so much to gain. If you didn’t get the System 1/2 reference from above, read Thinking Fast & Slow. Mandatory. I’m also tracking down Scott Adams’ Persuasion Reading list, so more from that next month.

Cheers!

Emotions in Games

Computer game developers, almost to a one, are blind to the emotional resonance of their games, but they don’t think they are. Quintessentially, they’ll talk about fun as an emotion and focus on that. They’ll talk about other emotions that they want to create, in particular: love and hate. The near universal conceit is that those sorts of emotions are hard, especially in single player games, so don’t even try.

They are blind to the emotional resonance that they do create, because they don’t think it can be done.

As an example, let’s consider an indie game called Card Crawl. It’s got wonderful art, music, sound, and gameplay. It’s the whole package, both in my estimation and that of VideoGameGeek


That’s a typical gameplay situation, sans the wonderfully subtle animations and music score. Quick run-through on the game follows. You’re the hapless adventurer in the bottom row of cards. Your sword and shield which can do, and block, 5 points respectively. You’ve managed to collected 14 loot points so far. It’s early yet with 44 cards to go, but you’re pretty beat up, and your skull is showing through…
To play, you drag cards around. In this case, I’m going to use my sword to slash the Troll, then drag him onto my shield. That’ll use up my sword, and leave me with a one point shield, and only 4 health. So, without healing, the spider would kill me. (For a moment, as I wrote this, I wondered if the adventurer was actually my younger daughter experiencing her worst fear.) Luckily there’s a Leech spell on the board which will heal me right up, based on the damage that I’ve taken at that point. One of the real fun parts of this game is the significant variety of blue spell cards and how they interact with the cards in play.

Oh, and of course there’s some LOOT on the board in the form of the coin, so into my backpack that goes… A victory will allow me to use the loot I’ve collect to acquire new blue cards.

So far, great. Really great. It’s a happy fun romp through cards with the whole Sir George and the Dragon sort of feel to it.

Until it isn’t.

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I  just used my last healing potion. I’ve pulled all of the cards out, and here I am at the end of the game.

“How do you end the game?” you ask.

“How do you loose the game?” is what you should be asking.

I’m of the school that there’s winning and learning. How you “not-win” is central to what are we going to learn. In this sort of game, you really don’t know what’s going to come next card-wise, because randomness plays a huge factor. That’s the central learning of this sort of game, otherwise stated as sometimes bad things happen to good people. An interesting lesson, and necessary, as without it, nothing good could happen to good people either.

It’s how you loose the game which is of issue.

I pulled the Slime onto my shield, which softened his blow by 2 and took three damage, so down to 7 health. The only recourse I have available is to drag the Souleater onto me and die. The only thing I can do is to feed myself to the Souleater. I get to kill myself with a Souleater. Killing one’s self is the only path to more.

I killed myself with a Souleater.

The only path forward is to commit suicide.

That lesson not OK with me.

Uninstalled.

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Ad Blocking and What Becomes of It

Forbes.com sometimes has interesting commentary. Their entry page detects that you’re using an Ad Blocker and presents nice message asking you whitelist them and, in exchange, they’ll give you an “ad light” experience for 30 days. They even define what ad light is in exactly the terms I would use.

So far so good. That’s exactly the sort of behavior I want to engage in. I whitelisted them and gave it a go.

Holy hell! They flat out LIED to me!

Over 40 different ad trackers and beacons, animated banner ads, AND a damn pop-over ad ON TOP of the content I came to see.

There’s one less site on the Internet…

I’ve got real work to do anyway, so thank you.

Things Companies Do

Apple and the FBI are in a legal dustup which, at its core, is the pin code lock on an iPhone. The FBI wants Apple to help them circumvent it. Apple refuses, on Bill of Rights grounds. We’ll find out what actions people actually take over the next few months after the lawyers are done wrangling.

In the meantime… What did Amazon just do? Why they just pushed an over the air update to all Kindles which turned off my Kindle’s pin code completely.

Compare:

Apple is actively resisting cracking a single phone’s pin code.

Amazon just turned them off, for everyone.

Gee. Thanks Amazon. Glad you have my back.

Deadlight – Random Playtest

Deadlight won the random toss for what game to playtest next. Deadlight is a zombie game, set in the 80’s near Seattle. Except it’s not really a zombie game, because you can’t seem to actually kill any of the zombies. They just fall over and get back up again after a while. Or maybe you can kill them, but heck if I know how. At least the first hour of the game is a progressive tutorial unlike any I’ve seen before. Each move comes with an explanation and a scene for you to learn it.

Good enough.

However, each line of move comes with a longwinded explanation of what to do, for both keyboard and controller.

Too much reading.

Each wall of text shows up right as you’re about to actually need to do whatever the new move is you need to know. Because there’s zombies. About to eat you.

Apparently I can read while being eaten.

I got to a wall-jumping “scene” and lost it. Seriously guys, y’all made it way too hard. Do what Lara does. We’ve been doing since the advent of 3D.

Uninstalled.

I got tired of grinding through set-piece after set-piece. The experience did NOT provide of the experience promised on the tin. I was drawn to this game because of the 80’s vibe and Seattle setting. Got none of it during the first nearly an hour of gameplay.

Zip.

I ran around as a man who, in the first scene shoots someone, because they’ve been bitten, admonishes his group to not go off solo, IMMEDIATELY does so. For a really long time, while getting bitten CONSTANTLY.

Cognitive dissonance.

Do I need to kill myself now? I’ve been bitten something like 50 times… The fact that I initially referred to the player character as “a man” instead of “me” is a tell for a broken suspension of disbelief.

The environments that guy ran through were bland, dark and dirty as hell. Apparently everything is immediately dirty and destroyed in a zombie outbreak. Look, I get it, that’s the expectation that people have. It was just not fun for me. The whole experience was built for dark black zombies with glowing orange eyes. Whatever it took to make black zombie shapes look good was what everything else in the environment had to do.

I just hated the art.

Dark-black zombies with glowing eyes and little to no blood = good idea. The cost in what it made me feel emotionally made me opt-out.

One thing I loved is the fatigue mechanic. Your guy finds a fireman axe and does what you’d expect to the zombies. However, in a sop to actual real-life, your guy can’t swing it a billion times in a row. There’s an energy bar, ho hum, but where the presentation really shines is in the display. The whole display shakes and shudders in a way that pitch-perfectly progressively indicates your guy’s tiredness. Imagine a VHS tape loosing tracking, with NTSC lines becoming visible, with color shifting.

Pitch-perfect – especially given 80’s setting.

Too damn bad that’s the only thing that I really enjoyed about this game. Swinging my axe until I got tired.

I think I’m going to go chop some wood.

Total time played: 42min
Opinion: Not worth it.

About my friend John Kounis

I am compelled to tell you a story about my friend John Kounis.

We were at 17,900 feet crammed into flying tin can. The cockpit of a Cessna 172RG is normally a small place, but on that day it was ridiculously so. We were way north of the Norwegian Sea, flying above Arctic waters. There was a life raft, ferry tank, survival gear – heck there was even a rifle. Our bright orange immersion suits and life jackets make us as large as Michelin Men. You’ve got about sixty seconds to once you hit the water to make it into the life raft, even with the suit. John had planned for contingency after contingency, and hadn’t let anything stop us.

That’s what it takes to do the hard thing.

We weren’t “supposed” to be there. A Cessna 172RG has a “service ceiling” of 14,600, so at 3,300 feet over it, we were basically hanging on the propeller at just fast enough to fly. There was a cold front slammed into Norway all along the coast pushing clouds high up, twenty thousand feet at points, substantially higher than forecast. We’d been picking our way through valleys in the clouds for hours. I was right seat piloting (aka “wrong side”) while John told me where to fly while he stared through, I kid you not, a golf shot level – a little telescope of a thing which told you if that wisp of a cloud was really above or below our flight path. You see, all we had to do was scrape a cloud with our wing and, BAMM, we’d pick up ice, loose lift, and have to immediately descend down to the ocean below. Not gracefully either. We’re talking 80 degrees down angle, get the hell out of the clouds right the hell now, or it’s all over.

Needless to say, we were working our ass off, but it didn’t feel at all like work. It was what needed doing, and we did it together.

“John, I can’t feel my hand.”

My right hand went suddenly numb basically from the elbow forward. I could see it. I could move it, but I didn’t really know where it was. Since I was right seat, I needed my right hand to fly the plane. Needless to say, I freaked the fuck out. I became convinced that my hand was no longer there, and started trying to remove the immersion suit to see it. I’m a big guy, so my flailing about cockpit made the plane unflyable – over the Norwegian Sea, IFR on top, within 500’ of clouds, in an airplane without de-icing. I distinctly remember John talking to me and working through what was wrong. There I was, generating a massive fucking problem, at the very definition of a bad time, and he was totally calm and collected. His tone was one which talked me down out of the state of near panic that I was in, nearly immediately, by inspiring trust, and transferring his confidence into me.

I calmed down and promptly blacked out.

You see, you need to use oxygen above 10,000 feet, and now I wasn’t getting any. On top of everything else, We only had one mask and had been passing it back and forth taking breaths in turn. John cranked up the oxygen, held his breath, and put the mask on me. I revived quickly and then he said please when asking for the oxygen mask back so he could breathe too. Deeply consider that for a moment. I had, not but the very minute before, been a full-on crazy man endangering not only my life, but his as well. He had the wherewithal, the gravitas, to say please while being utterly collected. He left the continuous flow of oxygen cranked up, I had 80lbs or so on him, so clearly setting it to his “normal” amount wasn’t enough. Problem solved, we went back to work flying the plane together.

He was an avatar of grace under pressure.

The clouds finally broke at the Arctic Circle. I’ll never forget our decent into the city nestled in the Fjords of Norway. We’d seen nothing but white clouds for hours. There was Trondheim, a city without night, the deep blue sea, the green and gray stone mountains, wind swept breakers and an utterly glorious runway.

The Norwegians went crazy for us once they figured out what we had done. Flying from Spitsbergen to Trondheim in a single go, in a single engine aircraft, blew their minds. Most of them couldn’t get past Spitsbergen. It’s a legendary place, an island far north of Norway where the Polar Bears roam, glaciers calve into the the ocean, the Arctic ice pack stretches out to the horizon, more seals than you can count – a true wilderness. For me, Spitsbergen was the best flying ever. The plane loved that air. The whole time, I was deeply aware of connectedness with all things.

On the ground in Trondheim, John and I were utterly drunk on air. We’d been flying for over 10 hours, and were totally exhausted, but the sea level air made us giddy like schoolchildren. I felt more alive than I had ever been.

The knowledge that such a life was possible was the greatest gift that John ever gave me.

As modern life goes, jobs took us to to different continents and we drifted apart. I stayed in Europe and he went off to fully embrace his truest destiny. He started a magazine, flew to more places than one could count, and encouraged countless people to do the same. Through his actions, he demonstrated that a more full life was possible, as he had done for me. All and all, he lived a life truest to himself.

John Kounis died of a pulmonary embolism on July 13th. He was 51.

I have spent the better part of days in a fetal position weeping for my friend. His departure leaves behind a colossal hole in the world. I know not how, but I am up off the floor, determined to go back to the business of living life and moving along a different heading, a better one, than before.

I ask of you two things.

First, please look at a picture of my friend: http://pilotgetaways.com/mag/ja15/RememberingJohn. That… That is what it looks like when you’re living the life you’re supposed to be living. Doing what is your best destiny. Being true to who you are.

Second, I was closest to John as he truly took flight. I know for certain that the act of flying had a profound impact on him. It was something he loved to share, and something we shared in. Please consider a donation in his name, so that others may also. The AOPA has established a flight training scholarship to honor John Kounis’ legacy. Contributions to the John Kounis Memorial Scholarship can be made here: https://ebiz.aopa.org/Default.aspx?TabID=175&offercode=R1507WXMEM. One hundred percent of the funds will go toward an aviation scholarship for a student pilot.

Thank you for reading about my friend John Kounis.

He was a great man.

Andrew