Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Archive for October, 2009

Reading the text: Katharine Kerr interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 30, 2009

Katharine Kerr is a fantasy writer best known for her Celtic-influenced Deverry novels. Here she talks about what it felt like finishing the final volume in this series, what current writing projects she’s working on, and about a particularly fatal gift a friend gave to her back in 1979.

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Author’s website:

http://www.deverry.com/

Could you take a minute and explain what The Silver Mage is about?

silver mageNo, actually, because it’s the wrap-up of the entire previous series and would take about 100 minutes. :-) In general though I suppose I could say that it continues the themes of the previous volumes and finishes the stories of the main characters of those volumes.

Your first Deverry novel was published in 1986 and since then you have written 15 more. That’s quite a run. Now with the final Deverry novel coming out, do you think you’re going to have a tough time letting go of the world?

I thought I might, but so far I mostly feel relief. I’ve had this particular volume in sight for many years now. It’s just that road got twisty and steep toward the end. I don’t know how I’ll feel in a few years, though. 27 years is a loooong time to invest in something. When I turned in the finished manuscript, I felt what I can only call post-partum depression. It only lasted a few days, though.

Do you have any current writing projects you’d care to talk about?

Yes. I’ve just sold a three volume humorous series of contemporary fantasies to DAW Books. The first, License To Ensorcel, is finished and will be out next year at some point, though I’m not sure when yet. They are about as cross-genre as you can get: mysteries, spoofs on the James Bond style of improbable secret agent, urban fantasy, science fiction elements, a dash of chicklit. They’re also fast-moving entertainments. I need a vacation from Death, Wyrd, Betrayal etc after Deverry. I have a couple of other books in mind for the future, but they are too amorphous to talk about, except to say that one involves Rome under Nero.

In 1979 a friend of yours gave you a “fatal gift.” Would you mind telling us what that was?

The infamous “blue box” Dungeons and Dragons, the one with the incomprehensible directions and opaque rules. It took me days to figure out how to play, but I knew I wanted to. That was the gift. Playing D&D led to writing for Dragon magazine. In one of the issues I read a short story that was, let us say, not my idea of good writing. I said to my husband, “I could write better stories than this!” He agreed and said, “Why don’t you?” That’s the fatal part. One word led to another, and here we are.

If it’s not too much trouble, please give us an overview of your gaming background (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)

dungeons & dragonsI’ve always loved games from the time I was three years old and started playing “Snakes and Ladders” with my indulgent grandfather. We moved on early to checkers and other games requiring a little strategy. So I suppose it was only natural, many many years later, that I loved Avalon Hill style wargames when I encountered them. From there I graduated to the hard stuff, ie, pen and pencil RPGs, D&D at first, and then Runequest, which is a superior system in my opinion. I also enjoyed — and contributed to — Chaosium’s “Pendragon” game. I played a little Traveller, too, back in the day, and Tunnels and Trolls. As for computer games, I miss the interaction with other players, though I have played 3 of the “Myst” titles and the much under-rated “Obsidian” as well — still, despite the lovely graphics, they’re not as satisfying as getting together with friends was.

Have you ever ventured into online worlds? If so, please explain what that experience has been like.

No, because I know I’d become addicted instantly. I’m my family’s sole support. If I got involved with World of Warcraft, we’d starve because I’d be playing for most of the day.

Would you mind sharing an interesting and/or amusing story from your gaming past?

Well, the Runequest world included a race called “trolls”, who were bad asses of the worst sort. They loved treachery, eating their relatives for dinner, conquest, getting stinking drunk, and the like. They were also matriarchal. We had a player in our group who kept agitating to play an all-troll campaign, but he hadn’t read the rules very carefully. So one day I said sure, I’ll GM an all-troll adventure. When he found out that the society was matriarchal, he dropped out!

Would you say your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer?

Yes, not in the writing process but in the necessary preliminary work. I drew out the Deverry maps on hex paper, so I could keep the distances between cities and the travel times accurate and consistent. I planned all the battles on hex paper overlaid with terrain, too, in order to keep track of who was where and what happened, both overall and to the viewpoint characters.

Would you say there is grind involved in the writing process?

Hell yes. It’s called “the middle of the first draft”. Openings are fun, because everything’s new and the possibilities seem endless. Endings — you feel like the proverbial horse seeing its stable after a long trek and start galloping home. But those damned middles, which alas are about 2/3s of the book — that’s where the grind comes in. Some writers will tell you they hate revising, but I don’t mind the revision process at all; it’s enjoyable, tinkering with a project and making it work well. The first draft is the grind for me.

By contrast, what would you say is one of the most rewarding things about being a writer?

Holding the printed and bound book in my hands when everything’s done. Getting the check isn’t bad, either.

How do you tend to escape these days?

Watching pro sports on TV.

Would you have any words of advice for the would-be-writers out there?

Learn the basics of writing well. That means grammar, spelling, sentence construction, word choice, overall prose rhythm and the like. I am tired of hearing wouldbe writers say “but my story is good so why does all that matter?” Sorry, it does matter, and if you can’t do it correctly, your story isn’t good, no matter what your friends tell you. The best way to learn this kind of craft is to read good fiction, including fiction outside the fantasy and SF genres. Literary writers may tell stories that don’t interest a genre writer, but they tell them very well. We can learn from them.

You wake up to a world where your Deverry Cycle has been made into an MMO. What class would you play and why?

runequestHalf-elven dweomermaster. Half so I could cross the borders without causing comment.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?

Don’t forget the great games of the past, systems like Runequest and its offshoots.

I’ve met a number of young gamers these days who honestly think that Warhammer and AD&D are the only RPGs that have ever been.

Have you ever been in a sword fight with Kate Elliott? If not, who do you think would win?

Kate, easily, every time. She’s got the skill and the training. I am strictly an armchair warrior.

And last but certainly not least, when was the last time you wielded a 20-sided die?

Years ago, too many years. Writing fiction has taken over my life and my time, but I do miss gaming.

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Reading the text: Rob Rogers interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 26, 2009

Rob Rogers is the author of the superhero novel Devil’s Cape. He talks about this first novel and how he managed to get it published, what he is currently working on, as well as his impressive RPG background.

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 Author’s website:

Door Number Six: Rob’s Blog

Could you take a minute and explain what Devil’s Cape is about?

bread and butterDevil’s Cape is the story of a Louisiana city (also called Devil’s Cape) that was founded by pirates centuries ago and has had a string of corrupt leaders ever since. In a world of superheroes, it’s a city with few heroes at all. The mayors and other city officials are bad enough, but the real power has been held by a long succession of crime lords. The first was the masked pirate St. Diable, who created the city as a place to build his power base and showcase his loot. The latest is the Robber Baron, whose charisma and popular parties hide incredible ruthlessness. Early in the book, a group of out-of-town heroes arrives in Devil’s Cape intent on avenging old wrongs by arresting the Robber Baron’s latest group of thugs, a team of superpowered carnival freaks called the Cirque d’Obscurité. Things go horribly wrong and eventually three new heroes arise to try to make a difference: Argonaut (Jason Kale), who has inherited all the abilities of the classic Argonauts of mythology and whose uncle leads a crime family beholden to the Robber Baron; Bedlam (Cain Ducett), a psychiatrist and former gang member who was cursed with a monstrous second form; and Doctor Camelot (Kate Brauer), a brilliant scientist whose father, the third superhero to be called Doctor Camelot, was murdered by the Cirque d’Obscurité, and who has adapted his high-tech armor for her own use.

What was the process like in getting your first book published?

I was very fortunate. Wizards of the Coast had an open call for submissions for its (short-lived, alas) Discoveries line. I submitted three chapters of the book and an outline and eventually made it out of the slush pile.

It was a bit more arduous than that, actually. Wizards’s open call suggested that submitters actually have the complete manuscript ready in case you were selected. I have a full-time job, kids, etc., and did not continue working on the book after the initial submission until Wizards contacted me (about six months after the submission) to tell me the editors would like to have the whole book for further review. Within 10 days. Talk about a combination of excitement and panic! I negotiated an additional few weeks and basically lived on energy drinks and coffee, churning the book out in my off hours during what was actually a very busy time at work, too. Then I submitted the book and waited. And waited. And waited.

Months later, after hearing nothing, I found out that the original editor I’d been working with, who had liked my manuscript, had left the company. Another Wizards editor, Phil Athans, was cleaning out the first editor’s cubicle and came across my book in a box. (Fun fact: To net myself an extra day of writing, I’d had it printed at a Renton-area Kinkos and couriered over to Wizards, and the courier had stamped the manuscript “Paid in Full,” and for a while, Phil thought that that was the name of the book.) Phil was about to pitch the thing in the trash, but he took pity on me and decided to read a couple of pages, and thank goodness, it hooked him.

The rest is less exciting–several revisions working with Wizards to develop the text (thankfully we very much saw eye to eye on the best ways to flesh some things out) and, eventually, publication.

Are you working on another book at the moment?

Yes. I was working on sequel to Devil’s Cape, but Wizards dropped the Discoveries line and focused on books tied to its games, so I needed to find another publisher. Finding a new publisher for a sequel can be tough (even though I have all the rights to Devil’s Cape and it could go back into print), so I’ve set the sequel aside for now and am working on another book along similar lines, a superhero story set in Texas, with aliens, cowboys, and and an evil cult to liven things up.

Were you a big reader as a child/young adult? What were some of your favorite books and/or authors growing up?

Sure, I’ve always been a huge reader. As a kid, it was Danny Dunn. Tom Swift. The McGurk mysteries. The Oz series. The Chronicles of Narnia. Eventually it became Xanth books, the Dragonriders of Pern novels, Sherlock Holmes, Star Trek novels, and the Belgariad. Eventually I branched out and started reading a lot more mysteries and thrillers, too. Dick Francis. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. James Lee Burke. Faye Kellerman. Robert Crais. Now I continue to read a ton of books, and it’s still often genre fiction–mysteries, thrillers, sci-fi, and fantasy. Also, of course, there have always been lots and lots of comic books.

What has your gaming experience been like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

I love board games, and graduated at a fairly young age from the Dungeon board game to the Dungeons & Dragons Basic and Expert sets, to AD&D. I dabbled in other RPGs, mostly the TSR games (I played Star Frontiers, Gamma World, and Top Secret). Then in 1985 or so, I discovered Champions, and that was just wonderful to me. I absolutely loved it and played on and off for years. I’ve GM’d quite a few Champions campaigns.

My original big console experience was the Atari 2600. I played the hell out of Adventure and messed around with some of the other early adventure-type games there, like Earthworld or Riddle of the Sphinx, on top of more arcade-style games. After that, I didn’t have a console for years. My older son got a Wii for his birthday this past summer, and that’s been a revelation. I’m surprisingly hooked on Lego Indiana Jones.

As far as computer games go, I loved Ultima VI and VII (both parts). Baldur’s Gate I and II, Icewind Dale, Neverwinter Nights. But it’s been a while since I played anything all the way through. Oh, except for Freedom Force. I loved Freedom Force.

Could you talk a little bit about online play-by-email gaming. How exactly does that work?

I think that it works a lot of different ways depending on the interests of the players and game masters. Some are very strategy oriented: “My character flies across the room and aims an energy blast at the second thug from the right.” But others are more like group fiction, with very detailed characters and character development, intricate plots where the game masters guides the action, but gives the players lots of room to pitch in, and side pieces where players develop short works of fiction about their characters. Often various campaigns spring up from a shared universe.

As far as the “how it works” part goes, like I said, there’s a lot of variety, but often in the groups I was in, it would work something like this:

A game master would conceive of a particular campaign. He or she would issue a call for submissions that would describe that campaign, the types of player characters he was looking for, etc. Players would send in character submissions and the game master would select the characters that best fit the campaign concept, play balance, personal taste, etc. Then, in the campaign itself, the game master would start a turn describing a situation and let the players react. For example, I once ran a superhero campaign (of prestigious heroes from an established team, in a universe others had created), with a scene of a giant white dragon attacking an oil rig off the coast of Norway. The heroes were thrown right into the action, arriving at the scene, and the players had to describe how they’d approach the situation. Of course, there were lots of complications as time went by. Each player would send in an e-mail explaining (with descriptions of the character’s actions in third person format) what the character would do. As game master, I then would weave all the players’ prior actions into the resulting turn. With big combat scenes, it could get pretty complex.

As a superhero buff, do games like City of Heroes/Villians, the forthcoming DC Universe Online and Champions Online hold any allure for you?

Oh, god, yes. But I have a feeling that if I started playing those games, I would have a very tough time pulling myself away from them. I dabbled in Magic: the Gathering Online for a while and it was kind of all-consuming. Even when I wasn’t playing, I was conceiving decks, shopping online for deals on cards, making wish lists, reading (and even writing) articles, etc. Champions Online looks particularly attractive. But I’m trying to stay strong and stay away for right now, so that I don’t take away from time with my family or writing time.

Would you say your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer? Please explain.

When I played PBEMs, I gravitated in particular to Champions games with strong writing components, and that opened my eyes to some of the possibilities of writing superhero fiction. It was a big influence on my writing.

I found, unfortunately, that that gaming drew from essentially the same creative well as my fiction, and ultimately I gave it up to focus on writing. But I had a lot of fun and made a lot of great friends along the way.

Grind is a term used frequently in gaming vernacular referring to something that is rather repetitive or unpleasant that one engages in in order to progress in the game. Would you say there is grinding in the writing process? Please explain.

Oh, sure, I get the grind concept. I remember playing Ultima VII, buying as much mutton as my characters could carry, laboriously finding inventory space for it, then hoofing it to another city to sell it at a profit. I spent hours doing that.

A lot of writing is grinding. You can have these great, mad, electric ideas (or at least they feel that way), but the process of getting them down, getting them to make sense, can be painfully difficult and slow. And that’s just the parts you’re excited about. A lot of times you have to work very hard on the other parts, too, the skeleton that holds the story together. No matter how much you love it, how much you love the story, a lot of the writing process is a grind.

By contrast, what would you say is one of the most rewarding things about being a writer?

Making connections. The most rewarding thing for me is that sudden click in my head when I solve a problem I’ve had or when I have a couple of different ideas that I suddenly realize can work together. The Eureka moments.

Would you have any words of advice for the would-be-writers out there?

I could throw a lot of aphorisms out there. Be prepared for hard work. Stick to it. Don’t be so sensitive that you can’t listen to other’s criticism and take it seriously, but be sure to take it with a grain of salt, too. But I guess the main thing I’d recommend is just to be sure to write a story that you would like to read. I don’t mean putting in a lot of in jokes that only you get; I mean imagine you were picking up your story and reading it fresh. What would you like about it? What would delight you? Focus on that.

With Devil’s Cape, I told an adventure story with characters I cared about, throwing in fun stuff like pirates and superheroes and carnival freaks, with a dash of imagined history. It very much targeted an audience of people like me, but I hope that it managed to entertain others, too.

You wake up to a world where Devil’s Cape has been made into an MMO. What superhero class would you play and why?

Man, that sounds like fun. Pardon me if I first fantasize about cashing that MMO check. OK, now what kind of class would I play? I think I’d play some kind of scrapper, someone who is good at a lot of things without necessarily being the best at any of them. Someone with potential for growth. If I got to adapt one of my Devil’s Cape characters to the game, I’d probably start with Argonaut. He’s not extremely experienced, but he’s very capable. Maybe even a little too powerful. The strength of Heracles, the wit of Theseus, the flying powers of the Boreals, even the voice of Orpheus. Lots of reasons to justify the character’s powers increasing as he got in better control of his connection to the original Argonauts.

improbable adventures of sherlock holmesIs there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?

Devil’s Cape is out of print for now, but it’s still pretty easy to track down copies. And I’m continuing to write. I just had a short story published in the anthology The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, edited by John Joseph Adams, a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories with elements of fantasy, science fiction, or horror. My story, “The Adventure of the Pirates of Devil’s Cape,” sees Holmes and Watson following the trail of a mystery to the city of Devil’s Cape back in 1894 or so. It was great fun to write. A big part of creating Devil’s Cape for me was world-building, and this story set in an earlier time gave me a chance to play with some of the historical elements I’d touched on in the novel. Plus, I’ve always been a huge Holmes and Watson fan, so that was an exciting opportunity.

What writing projects are you currently working on?

Mostly I’m working on the Texas-based superhero novel I mentioned before, but I dabble in a little short fiction when the mood strikes me. I recently finished a short story your readers might like. It involves a teenager whose best friend dies. But then he’s playing in a superhero MMORPG and spots his dead friend’s character running around. Hijinx ensue. If the story finds a home, I’ll drop a line in the comments or something and let you know where to find it.

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Girl update

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 26, 2009

It appears she has been identified and is in the process of being reunited with her family.

http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/10/24/teen.jane.doe/index.html?iref=mpstoryview

RC

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Do you know this girl?

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 25, 2009

At some point in the near future I’ll be interviewing Robin Hobb.  She sent me a note today asking me a favor.  What follows is part of her message to me.

http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/10/23/teen.jane.doe/index.html

Please look at the above news story and the picture of the amnesiac girl.

I am betting that she belongs to on-line groups, and possibly one that shares an interest in my works. If she looks like anyone on any of your ‘friends’ lists on any social networking site with a Hobb interest, please contact the police. If you recognize her story line about ‘Rian’ from any writing/critiquing groups you belong to, please contact the police.

Needle in a haystack, I know. But if we all sift a handful of straw, the haystack gets searched pretty fast.

Some of the comments following newstories about this girl have been snarky and sarcastic. The suspicion is that she’s ‘faking’. I’d rather be gullible a thousand times than turn away once from someone I could help.

Thank you,

Robin

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Reading the text: T. L. Taylor interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 22, 2009

T. L. Taylor is associate professor in the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen. In this interview she discusses her book Play Between Worlds, the current research she is conducting for a forthcoming book about professional computer gaming, and gets into her own gaming background and why she is particularly drawn to MMOs.

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Author’s website:

http://tltaylor.com/

Please explain what your profession happens to be.

I’m a sociologist by training and have spent most of my research life focusing on virtual environments and computer games. I’m associate professor at the IT University in Copenhagen where I am fortunate enough to be a part of a research group solely dedicated to the study of computer games.

play between worldsHow would you describe your book Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture to someone who has never heard of it?

The book is the product of quite a few years of ethnographic research in the massively multiplayer online game EverQuest (one of the earliest games of that genre). It covers a number of topics like socialization in these games, gender, the intense play of powergamers, and issues around the creative production of game culture by not only designers but players themselves. My hope with the book was both that it explained some things about the specific game of EQ (and the genre), but as importantly connected those up to larger conversations we have about things like gender, cultural production, the relationship between work & play, the blurred boundary between offline and online life, and the active role of users (players). For me games are not only interesting as artifacts in and of themselves, but the way they circulate and participate in our broader culture and conversations.

How did you come to write this particular book?

I was actually nearing the end my dissertation in 1999 and had heard some people in a virtual world I was in mention this new game, EverQuest. I got kind of curious so wanted to check it out, mostly as a distraction from work. But once I got there I realized there were some very familiar themes. It was a virtual environment, there were avatars running around, and there was real-time interaction with other people. These were all things I had studied quite a bit up to that point, both in MUDs and early graphical virtual worlds. But then in addition there was this game-layer to it and I found that really engaging and it provided some new angles to what was happening there. Something about running around as this crazy little gnome necromancer just hooked me and I ended up undertaking a multi-year study of the space.

Would you mind talking about the kinds of research that went into writing it?

I generally do ethnography in my work – that is, a kind of approach whereby you really come to live alongside members of a community as a way of understanding that world and their practices – and so I basically approached EQ that way as well. What that meant practically speaking is playing hours and hours of the game over years (and across several characters eventually), interviewing people both in the game and offline, attending a fan faire, being involved a lot with related websites (reading forums, comics, guild boards, etc). Basically doing all the things many players themselves do, but with an added layer of documenting, formalizing, reflecting and analyzing.

Are you pleased with the way the book turned out?

For the most part yeah but, of course, you always see glaring gaps in your own work. I would say the piece that is most missing from the book that I wish I had been able to dive into was more around structured raiding. EQ, and specifically EQ players, really innovated this aspect of play and in retrospect I wish I had had more data on that angle. Things like guild structures, loot systems, and practices around raiding have really taken hold in MMOGs in a way I don’t think I fully anticipated back when I was doing that research. So if I could go back and revise any part of the book, it would be adding more to that angle. I think the historical aspect of the growth of the genre is particularly fascinating.

Would you mind giving us a brief overview of your gaming background?

Unlike many folks I know, our family did not have a home computer or any kind of digital gaming system when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. Games for me were always board games, which my family played a lot growing up. When arcades hit I was a pre-teen so I did definitely made my rounds there, where my favorite game was Tempest (I still can’t resist playing if I stumble across an old machine). I didn’t game much in my teenage and early adult years aside an occasional board game. In 1990 though I started getting into the BBS scene courtesy of a PC with a modem at work – talk about lucky! – and discovered a number of games. When I got to grad school I spent a lot of time that first year (1991) in the computer lab doing email and reading Usenet. Somehow I stumbled into a group where someone was recounting a trip they took to meet all their MUD friends offline. I distinctly remember asking friends, “Do you know what a MUD is?” and being met with quizzical looks. I finally figured it out (courtesy of Usenet again) and was so intrigued I started avidly exploring those early text-based worlds. When I finally got my own computer things took off for me even more with them but I also started to play all kinds of puzzle and random CD rom games (though I distinctly remember finishing Loom on my first Mac back then).

At your peak how much gaming did you do? How about now?

When I was doing EQ I could spend six hours or more a day without much thought. I can still sock that much time away on whatever MMOG I am playing, especially on the weekends. These days though I divide my time across a few platforms. Being on a PC with an MMOG is still usually top of my list, but now I also spend a fair amount of time on my iPhone gaming while I commute and on my XBox playing a variety of oddball games.

As someone who has done extensive research on gaming, do you find it difficult to separate gaming for pleasure and gaming for research?

I’m assuming you perhaps mean, at least in part, something like when gaming moves from pleasure to work? This is a tricky question, perhaps because I think that often when we are playing for leisure it can be hard work too (I’m thinking now about when you had to do a lot of prep for raiding, or going over and over a puzzle trying to solve it even when it is frustrating). But beyond that tension I think all gamers confront in their everyday play, yeah, it is always a methodological issue to move between being very present in the gaming moment but also operating with that reflective or critical researcher cap on. Ethnographers have always had to mediate that to some degree and I think in the case of us doing that kind of work in games, we have all kinds of tricks of the trade we use to help negotiate our experience (screenshots, fieldnotes, audio memos to ourselves, etc.). It of course becomes even trickier when you can’t simply be a fly on the wall observing, but actually are integral to play (as in a raid or party for example). I think what often happens just as much to me is that I start playing something and then realize in the midst that there is actually a pretty interesting research angle to follow. So from a research perspective you are always having to be on your toes and make adjustments as you go, trying to be attuned to issues beyond any specific play moment.

Are you a particular fan of MMOs? What has your experience with them been like?

I am. I’ve always been drawn to multiplayer spaces, mostly starting with MUDs. The combination of embodiment, worldness, other people, and achievement is very compelling to me. I try to check out as many as I can, though perhaps unsurprisingly find it hard to give more than one my full attention. At this point being in one feels pretty second nature to me.

What MMOs are you currently playing?

I’m actually picking up Aion tonight since I’ve been hearing about it and of the last batch of releases have tried out Champions Online and Warhammer Online . Mostly WoW occupies my time when I am in an MMOG these days however. I know there are a ton of researchers who continue to do work in the game (it has become a bit of a joke I think, aka “WoW studies” instead of “game studies”) but I’m still puzzling out the role and implications of player-produced mods (and their relationship with the formal game) so despite perhaps being a bit of a cliche, it still holds some interest for me.

It appears you are writing another book on professional computer gaming. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Yeah, sure thing. Because of my work on powergamers in MMOGs I was thinking a fair amount of people who play in ways that can look to outsiders like work. When I stumbled upon the pro-gaming scene back in 2003 it perhaps unsurprisingly caught my eye. I went to my first match back then (the Danish national World Cyber Game finals) and was pretty amazed. I had anticipated meeting and interviewing players but what became apparent really quickly was that there were a ton of other people involved to make the pro/e-sports scene happen including managers, referees, admins, and coaches. Eventually I met broadcasters and league owners and I began to feel that there was a lot more to the scene that what usually gets written up in popular news articles where we generally only hear a kind of “Wow! Here is a young guy playing computer games for money!” type of story. So while the gamers themselves still form a core part of the story I want to tell, I’m actually really interested in showing the larger scope – from a more sociological angle – of what is happening in attempts to professionalize computer gaming. It’s a very different type of research project than my past work (in that I am not doing in-game ethnography) but I’m exciting about the themes the domain let’s me address including the boundary line between work and play, considering the notion of sport in light of computer gaming, the role of gender in games, spectatorship and commercialization, tracking emerging professionalization (including refs and broadcasters), and a formalization of the activity of play.

How would you say computer games have influenced you as a teacher? How about as a writer?

This is a really interesting question. I’d have to think more about the writing, though I can say that big writing projects (and indeed research) are often very puzzle-like in that you are piecing things together, watching for patterns, trying to advance to some kind of end point/goal via the argument and narrative. I’m actually drafting an article now about ethnography as play so I’ve been thinking about the ways that research practice often mirrors what I’ve experienced in online games. As for teaching, since coming to the ITU the bulk of my teaching is actually on computer games so that is a pretty big shift just in the domain of courses I handle. In the past I would often include a week or two in a media or internet studies class and often work on convincing the students there was some value to looking at these spaces. Now my challenge is often getting gamers to think more broadly, and critically, about play and its role in culture. And at a concrete level, well, I have to admit I was introduced to WoW way back when it launched by my students where we played together for awhile on a PvP server ;)

Would you have any words of advice for aspiring writers wanting to publish articles or books on computer games?

Personally I really enjoy reading work that tries to tackle some niche not yet explored and also one that makes it clear why it matters and what is at stake for us as readers understanding what is being described & analyzed. Within academia there is a real growing legitimacy for game studies so I think folks working within that area have some good publication venues out there now, including place like The MIT Press and journals like Games & Culture or Game Studies.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer audience?

I’d just say that for me, game culture is what is created not just by the boxed product itself but also by all the conversations and debates and in-depth analysis fans and critics do outside the game. In that regard your project is a great contribution to not only understanding games but producing game culture itself. So thanks a bunch for the invitation to chat with you and your readers. Folks are also very welcome to visit my website to read some of my work on games and virtual worlds if they are interested.

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One shot: Arnold Hendrick interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 20, 2009

Arnold Hendrick is a veteran of the computer game industry who’s held positions at Coleco, MicroProse and Kesmai Studios, among others. In this interview he talks about his own gaming background, what games he enjoys playing these days (with and without his wife), some of the highlights in his game design career and what advice he has for those hoping to get into the industry.

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Arnold Hendrick’s website:

MMO Tidbits

If it’s not too much trouble, would you mind discussing your background in the game industry?

You can get an overview of my computer game work history at the “about” page of my website, or logging into Linkedin and searching people for “Arnold Hendrick.” I keep both up to date, while the info below is pegged to this point in time (Oct 15, 2009):

I’m a 25-year veteran of the computer game industry, and prior to that worked in paper-and-pencil games. My first experience in computer games was at Coleco as a “designer” (which there included Associate Producer work) starting in 1983. When Coleco imploded along with the rest of first generation console gaming I joined MicroProse software and was there for ten years (85-95) as designer and producer (frequently both on the same game). That led to another few years at Bill Stealey’s successor company iMagic (95-98) in a similar role. Then I converted my growing interest in MMOs to something professional by joining Kesmai Studios as a senior producer. Kesmai was absorbed by EA, dismantled by EA, and then tried to constitute itself as Castle Hill Studios. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out very well. I then took some time for formal training in project management and a bit of consulting before going into “Serious Games” and virtual worlds at Forterra Systems (05-09). Forterra has run into some hard times, so at this moment I’m job hunting again – in the traditional game industry I know and love, MMOs especially. Know anyone who needs producer, senior producer or executive producer?

Had you done any game design before entering the computer game industry?

In fact, I’m old enough to have worked in the paper game industry before computer games came along. I’m probably best known for my stint as publishing director of Heritage Games in the late 70s and early 80s. I wrote various miniatures rules, acted as managing editor for a fantasy RPG, did some traditional boardgames, and along with Howard Barasch led the “Dwarfstar Games” division, including designing a fair number of them personally. Perhaps the best is “Barbarian Prince.” I recently ran into a game industry entrepreneur and studio leader who remembered that game with great fondness.darklands

You were chief designer on the PC game Darklands for MicroProse. I actually played this game and remember thoroughly enjoying myself—particularly for the game’s open world. In fact, GameSpot lists it as one of the greatest games of all time. How do you feel the game turned out and did it turn out the way you had hoped it would?

Darklands as a game DESIGN turned out really well because so many people worked so hard to make it great. I also think the basic idea worked really well: build a fantasy RPG around the belief structures of the 15th Century Germanies, which are just close enough to conventional fantasy to be understandable to gamers, but just different enough to make everything seem novel and new.

However, as project leader I was a real “babe in the woods” about project management back then and MicroProse had literally no process whatsoever. As you might imagine, the result was working insane hours for months on end for a game that was late, over budget, and shipped with far too many bugs. More than any other experience, that game got me interested in project management, although it took me a while to find truly better ways for making games.

From all the games you’ve worked on, is there one you are most proud of?

As a game designer, I’m always thinking that the next game will be better than anything previous. I suspect most designers are that way. Of course in today’s game industry target markets, timetables and budgets don’t always allow you to work on what you’d like. This may not be all bad – look what happened when NCsoft gave Richard Garriott a blank check for Tabula Rasa!

Historically speaking, I’m probably proudest of my collaboration with Sid Meier on the original “Pirates!” game. We worked well together, and produced a really innovative game that held up remarkably well. “Gunship,” “Darklands” and “M1 Tank Platoon” were the most innovative at their time, while “Silent Service II” for the PC was a fine “sandbox” game. In paper games I always felt “Demonlord” and “Barbarian Prince” in the dwarfstar line were the most innovative. I keep getting inquiries about republishing rights for the “Sword & Spear” miniatures rules (ancients skirmish rules), although I believe the “Warlords” rules we were finishing as Heritage went under in 1982 were my finest miniatures rules set, largely because of their simplicity.

piratesI should hasten to add that when it comes to computer games you are quite correct to say “games you’ve worked on” rather than “your game.” All computer games are team efforts, and reflect the team as much as any one individual.

Would you mind taking a minute and talking a little bit about your own gaming background (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

I remember in 4th grade getting various toy army men and tanks, creating some rules for them (mostly tables for movement and damage), and dragooning my younger brother and neighborhood kids to play. The local kids didn’t enjoy the game much, since as rules inventor I always knew details they didn’t. I shamelessly used this advantage to always win. Eventually I had to play the games solo!

As a teenager I played Avalon Hill hex wargames with a passion – RPGs didn’t even exist then! With the advent of D&D and especially Traveler (from GDW) I went wild over RPGs. I played many of wargames solo too, which was probably good practice for computer game design. After all, even MMOs usually need a strong PvE component to succeed.

I believe all this gaming is what fed my academic interest in political and military history. That’s what my degree is in, and I retain that interest to this day. My experience learning about, playing and designing boardgames strongly influenced many of the MicroProse game designs. However, at this point the majority of computer game design “lessons” can now be learned from previous computer games, with only rare forays further back into paper games.

Would you say working on computer games has in some ways lessened your enthusiasm for playing games?

Nope, not in the least. I still spend hours every night playing games. Mostly its online MMOs, but sometimes I’m playing solo games (usually PC games, more rarely console titles). The best way to keep up in this industry is to keep an eye on what everyone is doing.

What games are you playing these days?

I have played MMOs with my wife since the early days of text-only games on GEnie (circa 1993-94). Starting with EverQuest we decided on a formula that has served us well for a decade. When playing a game together, we have one character each that we ONLY use when playing with the other. We always group together. Therefore, we advance at the same rate (unless the game has broken level-up logic, as Warhammer does). We’ve done this successfully in EQ, DAoC, WoW, EQ2, SRO, Conan and Warhammer, to name a few. She hates PvP and doesn’t have the hand-eye coordination to handle fast-action games (like MMOFPS titles), but fortunately there are enough “classic” MMORPGs still coming out that we expect to spend many more years gaming together. Having hit level cap in WAR, right now we’re back in EQ2 giving it a second shot (as a dark elven Shadowknight-Inquisitor team).

Outside of my gaming with her, I’ve recently been playing EVE, Champions and Fallen Earth – all games she wouldn’t like. I can’t play Aion because I’m one of the 5-10% whose ISP’s routers hate Aion’s comm layer, resulting in impossible lag spikes. Incidentally my ISP is AT&T in the heart of Silicon Valley running at 3.0 Mbps! Grrr, grrr. I’m also waiting for Earth Eternal to fix their sound problems so I can fully enjoy that – browser MMOs are VERY interesting (FusionFall was a lot of fun!).

I’m looking forward to APB and SW:TOR. My curiosity is both professional and personal. Both games are being very daring, although in different ways. By the end of next year we should know a lot more about how to design the next generation of MMOs.

Would you care to share a particularly memorable experience from your game design days?

Well, on the good side, it was sitting with Sid Meier, talking about the pirates game as we built it, going off to do my part, giving my files back to him, and seeing it all working just a week later. There is something magic about a game as it comes together. You don’t know that it’s great, necessarily. It’s just nice when it starts working as you envisioned in your mind’s eye.

What advice would you have for someone wanting to get into the game design?

Don’t get too caught up in grandiose visions. Great games are about doing a really good job with all the details – without driving the company into bankruptcy in the process! Never design for yourself – since nobody is going to have your knowledge and skill with the game. Instead, design for the full range of the game’s audience. Imagine yourself in their shoes, often as a total newbie, and how they’d experience it. Just because you can beat a level in 30 seconds or do your quest in your sleep doesn’t mean it’s too easy. One of the persistent errors made by newbie designers is trying to show off by making “impossible” levels, raid dungeons, etc.

Game design is learned by doing. Get a game with a level editor or a scenario maker or whatever and create something. Get some friends to try it. Don’t TELL them how to play. Instead, watch them and see what happens. Quietly observing how people play (or struggle) with a game is VERY educational.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gaming audience?

If somebody has a pile of money, I’m full of ideas for how to make some great MMOGs! To get some insights into my thinking about design and production of MMOs, feel free to take a look at www.mmotidbits.com.

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Reading the text: Kate Elliott

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 16, 2009

An interview with science fiction/fantasy author Kate Elliott who talks about her Crossroads series and her gaming background. Other highlights include her closet X-Men comic book reading habits, her experience being a model for pen-and-paper RPG cover art, and how a sword fight led to marriage.

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Author’s website: http://www.kateelliott.com/spirit gate2

From what I can gather you’ve lived in a variety of places around the world and currently reside in Hawaii. Would you say where you live has an impact on your writing?

Yes. I believe that having a mother who was an immigrant and having lived in foreign countries has made me more aware that the way we live, in the USA or even in my particular neighborhood, is only one way that people live. It’s also gotten me interested in exploring other cultural lifeways, as the anthropologists say, and using elements of them in my work. For instance, after living in Mexico while my archaeologist husband was doing fieldwork, I decided to give my “elves” in the Crown of Stars series a Mesoamerican feel including a backstory that had them sailing eastward to make landfall and try to build a new home in the Europe equivalent of the “Old World.” The Crossroads series shows a clear Asia/Pacific influence from my time living in Hawaii. Also, after writing about so much snow and ice in the Crown of Stars books, I decided to set the Crossroads books in a subtropical/Mediterranean climate like the one I was now living in. So — yeah, definitely.

You’ve said you met your husband in a sword fight. Would you care to explain this?

We were both members of the Society of Creative Anachronism, and we both fought in armor (I did not join the SCA for the cooking, sewing, or cultural life; I was just a stick jock). We literally met in the first or second round of a tournament, where we double killed (isn’t that romantic?). Later, a friend of mine “became queen” (as per the way the SCA does things) for the summer, and she decided that because she fought in armor (not all that many women did so), that all of her ladies in waiting would be female fighters. I was one of ladies in waiting. The queens also always had a “Queen’s Guard,” made up of fighters who had not yet been elevated to “knighthood” (generally conferred on a fighter when the council of knights figured s/he was a good enough fighter to warrant the honor) but were very very close. So . . . he was the captain of the queen’s guard and I was a lady in waiting. Isn’t that sweet?

If someone were to come up to you at a dinner party, or perhaps during a sword fight, and ask what your Crossroads series is about, what would you tell them?

During a sword fight I would probably figure they were trying to distract me, so I wouldn’t tell them anything. But at a dinner party, I might say, “Crossroads is a historical novel set in an imaginary world about . . . uh . . .” and then I would run out of things to say. I’m really awful at describing my books. I need some more elevator pitches, like the one I made up for my Jaran series: “Genghis Khan meets Jane Austen.” A few months ago I might have said something like, “a fantasy trilogy as done by HBO” but now that George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is actually being filmed by HBO I can’t say that anymore. So how about: “it’s an epic fantasy series about justice, corruption, and people crossing borders to find new lives. Oh, and there are cops–I call them reeves–who fly around on–actually underneath on a hang glider style set up–giant eagles the size of small Cessnas.”

Would you mind describing what the process was like for you in getting your first book published?

Can I just provide a link to my “writing biography?”

Were you a big reader as a child/young adult? What were some of your favorite books and/or authors growing up?

Yes, I was a huge reader. The first books I remember are Thornton Burgess’s Mother West Wind stories, which I read and re-read and re-re-read. I then graduated to animal stories. I read animal stories until junior high, by which time I had also moved via the monthly Scholastic Book purchases at school into fantasy and science fictional stories. In junior high I read Tolkien, and that kind of ate my life. I really don’t think I ever got over it. Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles is another book that had a big impact, as well as Edgar Rice Burroughs and some of the early reboots of the X-Men (when they introduced the big new set of characters). I didn’t keep following the X-Men, though, because everyone else in my family kept informing me that to read comics ought to be beneath me; I’m sad that I listened to them at that time, because I really loved those comics and ended up reading them all later, when no one was around to suggest in that pitying way that I ought not to want to read such things. Jane Austen and Ursula Le Guin were big influences in high school and later I read many of C.J. Cherryh’s novels. Many more, of course; those are a few to start with.

What do you enjoy reading these days?

I read a lot of non fiction, much for research that is also for pleasure. My fiction reading is mostly sff, with a few mysteries and mainstream novels thrown in for variety.

Are you or have you ever been a gamer? What has your gaming experience been like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

shadow gateAs a child, my family mostly played card games like Pinocle and Hearts. However, my husband is an old school wargamer. He still owns many rare original games, including early versions of the board game of RuneQuest and other Chaosium games. I mean, this man played some entire 5 day World at War scenario, maybe more than once, in high school (Third Reich? World in Flames? A World at War? World War II? Who knows?). I don’t have the patience for that kind of gaming. Risk pushes my limits in terms of time spent staring at a board. When our children were younger, we often played Cosmic Encounters, The Awful Green Things From Outer Space, Kings & Things, and Dungeon, and others too numerous to mention. Our family currently enjoys Settlers of Catan and its offshoots.

My RPG experience is far less extensive. I had never heard of RPGing until after college. I played some Runequest, did a tiny bit of play testing for Worlds of Wonder: Superworld. I also played in a few campaigns run by other people (which were great). That’s about it. I don’t play console games (I’m sorry to say our children were never allowed to have a console, but they more than made up for it with computer games). I do like puzzle computer games, but these days browsing the internet takes up far too much time so I don’t even have time for garden variety time-wasting games.

Have you ever ventured into or perhaps been exposed to online worlds? If so, please explain what that experience has been like.

When I was in college, I played what was either Colossal Cave Adventures or an early version of Zork (I’m not sure). I thought it was the coolest thing ever. No online game since has ever had quite the novelty, although I admit I’ve deliberately avoided the current explosion of online worlds due to needing to have a life in this world rather than spending all my time in an addictive world next door. I do enough of that by writing. In fact, one could almost call my novels a form of gaming, only I’m doing it all by myself.

Would you mind sharing an interesting and/or amusing story from your gaming past?

My husband and I were the models for the RuneQuest third edition (Avalon Hill) cover.  The painting was one of illustrator Jody Lee’s early professional jobs; she’s since done covers for many many books, including my Crown of Stars series (7 volumes) for DAW Books (1997 – 2006).

Would you say your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer?

I would say that fighting in armor in the SCA has had a greater influence on me as a writer than gaming. But I played in a Call of Cthulhu campaign once, many years ago, and that left me with a lingering appreciation for H. P. Lovecraft’s imagination and the appeal of RPGing in a campaign where you are more likely to fall into gibbering insanity than to die.

Would you say there is grind involved in the writing process?

Yes. Writing is work, just like work is work. I’m not complaining, mind you, at making my living as a writer, but I don’t sit around waiting for the Muse to strike. I sit down and work, and sometimes I would rather be folding laundry, and sometimes I would rather be writing.

By contrast, what would you say is one of the most rewarding things about being a writer?

When the writing is going well. There’s nothing like that flow, when words are pouring from brain through hands to paper/screen, and the vision in my head is making it onto the page. Not perfectly, of course, but so I can see the shape and feel of it. Then, also, I love when revising goes well, when that original draft or drafts falls into place with the right pacing and imagery.

When do you find time to write?

I write full-time. It’s my profession. So I find time to write in the same way a person “finds time” to work where they are employed.

traitors' gateHow do you tend to escape these days?

I paddle outrigger canoes, both 6 man canoe (OC-6 paddling is the Official State Team Sport of Hawaii) and one man canoe (out by myself or with friends).

Would you have any words of advice for the would-be-writers out there?

I do. The most comprehensive thing I have to say to would-be writers is contained in a long post titled “Advice for First-Time SFF Novelists” which is in fact applicable to most writers to one degree or another, not just science fiction and fantasy (sff) novelists.

You wake up to a world where your Crossroads series has been made into a massively multiplayer online game. What race and class would you play and why?

I can’t imagine myself playing a Crossroads MMO because it feels like I would know everything in the world already, so there would be no suspense. But I think a Crossroads MMO would be very cool.

I have to say that although I know it’s just a mechanism for playing, that entire race and class designation thing in RPGs and MMOs drives me crazy because it becomes such an arbitrary thing with such a limited sense of characteristics and a baseline of defining individuals by artificially imposed identities. However, having said that, if I were to play a WoW or D&D style MMO, I would TOTALLY be an awesomely agile and athletic elf warrior chick whose weapons are bow and arrow, and sword.

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One shot: Geldon

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 13, 2009

Interview with blogger and fledgling independent game designer Geldon Yetichsky who discusses his game blog, Digitally Staving Off Boredom, and talks about his own gaming background, his blogging experience and what working with BYOND, a free online game development suite, has been like.

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MMO community connection:

Digitally Staving Off Boredom

Please take a minute and describe what your blog is about.

The actual subject of what my blog, Digitally Staving Off Boredom, is about has been largely in flux for some time. Much like MMORPGs, there’s a lot of blogs out there these days, and so finding a niche is important.

I knew early on from my visiting sites such as Lum The Mad or Old Man Murray that if I wanted to be a popular blog, I should probably entertain my visitors. People like to laugh, it would bring them back. However, it turns out I rarely was in the mood to tell jokes, I prefer to be more of a straight man, so that didn’t pan out.

For awhile, I thought perhaps I would be an aggregation blog whose goal was to find “the diamonds in the rough” amidst all the cloned crap in the gaming universe right now. That too didn’t pan out, partly because there’s way too much crap out there for one person to reliably to sift through, and partly because I really was not feeling the calling to do so.

Right now, my Blog is mostly a soapbox where I talk about what I’ve been playing lately, what I feel they did right, and what I feel they could do better. This is because I have more of a concern on game development lately ever since I started dabbling with BYOND (a free online game development suite). I consider myself a fledging independent game designer who, having not released his first game yet, can still feel relatively free to constructively pan his future competition without facing legal repercussions.

What was your introduction to MMOs and what was that experience like?

I’ve been online gaming since way back, on a 300 baud modem using a Commodore 64 (I was about 10). I’ve been gaming regularly ever since, and so to me it seems as though MMOs are just another step along the lines of slow evolution from the old bulletin board system door games that I played as a kid. Consequently, the lines gets a bit blurry when you approach what constitutes my first MMO played.

If I had to take a stab in the dark, I’d have to say my first experience with an MMO would be Kesmai’s Multiplayer Battletech:EGA over GEnie. The core gameplay was basically identical to the first Mechwarrior PC game, but with two major differences. First, each of the up to 8 mechs that could be in the game were each controlled by an individual player (it was no longer a single player game). Second, there was now an out-of-battle game that involved several chat lobbies and several factions, where much organization and roleplay would take place – the bridge which made the game a MMO.

I did not play it very long, because MMO gameplay back then was something that was charged for on a dollars by the minute rate. In one electrifying weekend, I had an over $300 bill to explain to the parents, and that was that. However, the MMO bug had been planted.

Can you recall that first MMO “wow!” moment?

Again, considering my history, things tend to blur together a bit. However, one experience that really stuck in my mind was back from the early days in EverQuest. Coming into the view of the entrance to Kaladim (the dwarven city) the first time and seeing these towering statues above it, entering the cave and actually seeing this city hewn out of the interior, this was very much a “wow!” moment for me.

There’s something about those early EverQuest environments that really made them feel more real to me than even recent MMORPGs have managed. There does not seem to be that kind of ambition towards hand-crafted MMORPG content anymore, things are so cut and pasty in comparison.

At your peak, how much time per week would you say you spent playing? How about now?

The term “hardcore gamer for life” applies rather well to me. I was hooked to gaming back on the Commodore 64 when I was kid and, while computers have changed, my habits have not. I’ve always been a bit of a fairly introverted type, so I haven’t felt much social pining to do otherwise.

I pretty much dedicate every scrap of spare time of waking hours I have towards the habit, outside of school or work. Given a series of days in which I may have no other obligations, something along the neighborhood of about 12 to 14 hours a day, I guess it comes out to about 90 hours a week, give or take.

Now? Not quite as much. I think I’ve become a bit jaded when it comes to games – it’s really hard to find one that entertains me for long anymore. I’ve seen all the old gimmicks, and new stuff doesn’t come around that often in this age of clones we live in. Consequently, game development can be a lot more satisfying for me and so I dedicate those hours to towards that – especially during a dry spell when quality entertainment seems completely out of my reach.

Do you tend to supplement your MMO gaming with other PC, console, or tabletop games?

Though I’m primarily a PC gamer, I have branched out into consoles given the general lack of originality to be found in PC gaming (with the notable exception of indy games). I enjoy the exceptional range of exotic tastes to be found on the PS2, the mainstream American flavor of the X-Box 360, and the unique Nintendo craftsmanship on the Wii (on the few titles that aren’t kindergarten casual).

I particularly enjoy the Nintendo DS on the grounds that there’s a greater focus on gameplay on these smaller platforms since there’s not so much capacity to push whiz-bang graphics. Right now I’m playing Scribblenauts for example… it’s a very interesting concept, simply being able to summon any one of thousands of nouns is an incredible technical achievement, albeit it’s not particularly well balanced in this implementation.

Tabletop games, not so much. Though I have dabbled with some of the source materials of a few of them (notably Battletech) they are largely social activities. The big satisfaction tabletop game isn’t so much rolling the dice and advancing in levels so much as applying your imagination with friends. There’s a lesson there that many contemporary CRPG developers overlook.

What MMO(s) are you currently playing?

Champions Online, just released last month. I put over 1600 hours into City of Heroes (that’s just the time logged when I had XFire running) and so the spiritual successor of the game definitely has my attention.

It probably would have been a bit better received if they did not make so many last-few-months adjustments to the core underlying power mechanic, cutting short the time they had to really balance the powers out. Further, the content is a bit sparse, partly because they’ve been tweaking advancement rate and so some of the content is skipped as players out-level it.

However, Cryptic Studios is a fairly outstanding bunch, and they’ve been fixing what’s broken with the game at a downright aggressive pace. Against my earlier reservations, I shelled out for a 6 month subscription to the game upon its release, as I expect to see a much better product by the time comes around to consider a renewal.

Would you mind sharing a particularly enjoyable gaming experience?

As you can imagine with a fellow who plays games as often as I do, I’ve so many particularly enjoyable gaming experiences to draw upon that it’s hard to isolate just one (though less so given the prevalence of clones these days).

I think the last game I really enjoyed to an extent reminiscent of my start as a gamer would be Psychonauts. While the game was a platformer on the surface, there was just an incredible soul conveyed through the thing. I really connected well with all the characters in the game – the campers and councilors of this summer camp for psychics – and also the surrounding environment. From the beginning to the end of the game, I was fairly riveted – me, a PC gamer playing a platformer, of all things. All hail Goggalor.

Double Fine really is a batch of truly outstanding developers, perhaps the best in the business I can readily recall. I look forward to getting my hands on a copy of Brutal Legend soon. I really hope they don’t suffer the fate of similar studios which are simply too good for mainstream appreciation. (E.g. Clover Studio, maker of Viewtiful Joe and Okami.)

When did you first start blogging? Would you mind taking us up to present with all of your projects?

My very first blog was started July of 2004. It started when I lost my last real full time job and went on for about 700 posts before I took that private and did a reboot. The reboot was Digitally Staving Off Boredom, it continued for nearly 300 posts on Blogger before I took it to WordPress, where I now have about 200 published posts.

Presently, I’m mostly focused on fledging game development. I’ve been working with BYOND. BYOND is a very interesting suite in that it’s free but allows you to construct a remarkably diverse amount of games which automatically include optional tile based graphics and online functionality. They even include a great web portal.

I’ve been dabbling a lot with it on and off over the past couple years, getting really good at the code (prior to this I’ve only brushed up against C++, Java, and Visual Basic). I hope to turn out something there “soon.” Thus far, I’ve done many experiments in trying to push the envelope of gamekind, but I’ve yet to see something through to completion. My “progress” (or lack thereof) can be tracked on my BYOND portal blog.

Do you see blogging as just a hobby or perhaps something more?

I use my blogs for a lot of purposes.

I do have one for personal venting, that’s private, and I think I largely keep that one up out of a certain nostalgic consideration that I might just look back at it some day – it’s more of a journal (talk about old school).

My Digitally Staving Off Boredom blog is perhaps best described as temporal art, largely revolving around my angst as a dedicated computer gamer who is a bit jaded about what happened when his favorite hobby went mainstream. Here, I post up things I find interesting at the time and maybe later I’ll take them down. This isn’t done out of dishonesty, but rather because I feel that a blog is a place where I can put my best face forward and tell the world what I think needs to be said. (Also, once in a great while, I’ll write up a hint guide, and when it comes at you with 26 years of gaming experience it might just be worth a read.)

Finally, there’s my most recent blog over at BYOND which I just mentioned. It is largely used to publicize my struggles in highly independent game development.

Do you have a schedule or some sort of routine you try and follow when blogging?

For Digitally Staving Off Boredom, it waxes and wanes as the mood takes it. I’ve decided I want to have something to say, and so if I feel I don’t particularly have anything worthwhile then I resist the temptation to write something. Inspiration (the muse) is a fickle beast, it does not beget true progress to hold it to a schedule.

For my BYOND blog, I try to have an entry up every Monday just to let people know what I’ve been working on that week. It’s a very embarrassing bunch of reflection on my lack of progress since Champions Online’s release and I returned to school over the past month.

What do you find pleasurable about blogging?

I think I get the artist’s appreciation out of blogging – whether or not anyone else particularly appreciates one’s art, simply the creation of the artifact feels worthwhile it that it is a manifestation of something outside of yourself. I’m not going to fool myself into saying it’s an immortal part of myself – if I got hit by a meteor tomorrow and WordPress caught wind of it, my blog would probably be gone in a flash – but it’s good to produce something, be able to look at it, and think the world is imperceptibly better with it than it was without.

Are you pleased with how your blog has been received in the blogosphere?

Generally speaking, my blog doesn’t attract a whole lot of hits. If I crest 100 hits it’s a good day. However, I don’t blog out of aspirations for popularity, nor do I make any money from it. I blog because I think I have something to say. So I’m about as pleased as one can be when they think they have something to say that someone might trip over accidentally from time to time.

If you had a chance to do it all over again, would you do anything different?

Given my current expectations, no. However, in an alternate universe where I care a lot more about whether or not people take the time to glean my wisdom (such as it is)? I think I would have told a lot more jokes in order to keep them coming around.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to try their hand at blogging?

It’s certainly good to know the true motivation behind your reason for blogging. I started off not knowing what I would do with my blog, and it ended up mutating between so many different focuses that it required a reboot or two. If you’re in it for money or the popularity, you’re going to have way different motivations than I do. If you’re not, then don’t let a relatively low number of hits bother you: after all, the mainstream sucks.

You wake up to a world where you are the head of a company developing an MMO. You have unlimited funds and resources available to you. Please describe the kind of game you would make.

On an off over the years, it’s become robustly clear that the ultimate geek fantasy would be a completely free-roaming universe game that includes interaction on both the ship travel level and the personal level (walking about planets, space stations, ect).

The pitch line is Mass Effect Online, but it would actually have largely different game mechanics, neither borrowing from EverQuest nor Gears of War. Instead, it would have game mechanics owing largely to its completely dynamically generated universe, one where when the players do things, they actually matter, the quest does not simply reset 5 minutes later.

Though dynamic, it would also well balanced in such a way that the players do not possess absolute power but rather are individual members of the major factions within the games, and consequently the newbies are able to be something more than perpetual wage slaves for the established players.

Ironically, the game would probably never be released because, in a scenario with unlimited funds and resources, the refinement cycle can go on indefinitely.

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Reading the text: Frank Beddor

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 12, 2009

Frank Beddor is a former world champion freestyle skier, film producer, actor, stuntman and author. He talks about his Looking Glass Wars trilogy which tells the real story of Alice in Wonderland and sheds some light on the new free to play MMO card game, Card Soldier Wars, based on his books.

*  *  *arch enemy

Author’s website:

http://www.lookingglasswars.com/home.html

Could you take a minute and explain what your novel The Looking Glass Wars is about?

Essentially, it is the TRUE story of Alyss OF Wonderland.

While in London for the U.K. premiere of There’s Something About Mary, I visited the British Museum where I came upon an exhibit of ancient cards – playing cards, Tarot cards, illuminated cards, cards Napoleon had hired artists to create illustrating his victories. There was also an incomplete deck that intrigued me. The images reminded me of ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ but they were more mysterious and twisted, much more gothic. After that, I couldn’t stop thinking about those cards. Through a series of events, I met an antiquities dealer who owned the remaining cards from that deck. And the story he told me – as he revealed one card at a time, each with this incredible imagery – is the basis for the ‘Looking Glass Wars’ trilogy.”

The Looking Glass Wars became somewhat of a scandalous sensation in the U.K. when it debuted there in 2004 and revealed how Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, had willfully misrepresented the story of seven-year-old Alyss Heart, betraying the exiled princess of Wonderland by turning her painful history into a fairytale, when, in fact, it is a dark and dangerous depiction of familial treachery, thwarted love, and the despotic domination of imagination.

What the process was like for you in getting the book published?

Initially, frustrating but after being rejected by a number of publishers in the US I found a home at Egmont Books in London. After LGW’s success with the British edition I was able to interest Penguin in doing the trilogy.

Before becoming a successful novelist, you met with success in other fields as well. Would you mind talking a little about your background?

I was a pro freestyle skier when I first worked in Hollywood doing some stunt work in films. The experience was a good one and I stayed to do some acting and then some producing. In 1998 I produced There’s Something About Mary.

After the success of the film I formed Automatic Pictures to develop creative properties. I put a bunch of projects into development but at the same time was coming to realize that, as a producer, you’re a facilitator for the creative team, but what I really wanted to be was a creator. Once that seed had been planted in my mind, it was impossible to shake it loose and I started writing.

Are you or have you ever been a gamer? What has your gaming experience been like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

With the exception of HALO I have not played many console or computer games. My gaming roots go back a little further (several thousand years) to GO, a game I’ve always been fascinated by. So much so, in fact, that the LGW card game is based on the same surrounds and conquers game play as GO. My other game experience occurred when I was approached as a producer by Hasbro to develop a film based on Monopoly. I created a pitch and attached Ridley Scott to direct. The film has not gone into production yet but every now and then I read something about it in the trades. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.

Have you ever ventured into online worlds? If so, please explain what that experience has been like.

One of my initial experiences with online worlds occurred when I wanted to build a web presence for LGW. Most of the sites that authors presented lacked the stickiness I wanted to create for my readers. This is when I discovered sites like Neopets, Gaia Online, Habbo Hotel and some of the larger communities like EVE and WoW. These were amazing, highly interactive communities and I was inspired to create something similar for my fans.

Speaking of online worlds, you’ve created an MMO based on your Looking Glass Wars series. Would you mind talking a little bit about the game and explaining what the experience of creating it was like?

Daunting. I worked with my friend and author PJ Haarsma. We came up with the idea in my backyard, but neither of us had any experience. We simply jumped in and started creating our worlds. RingsofOrbis.com was the guinea pig based on PJ’s book series The Softwire, followed by my game CardSoldiersWars.com. The games quickly developed a life of their own, each with an insatiable appetite for our time and attention. Despite the work it has been very rewarding. I don’t know of any other authors that have online games that allow readers to interact inside their worlds on a daily basis.

In CSW, players pledge allegiance to a suit and then create an army of card soldiers. The most powerful army wins the honor of placing their queen on the throne. Players interact with each in a PBBG format while immersed in the story line of my novels.

Would you say you were inspired by other games in its development?

I was inspired by the sense of community these games create. I wanted a place where fans could hang out between my books and interact with the massive universe that I had created for LGW. My world is so much larger than what lies between the pages of my books and the game provided an amazing format to share more stories.

looking glass wars card game2You’ve mentioned you are trying to keep up with technology and your website is certainly a testament to that. I managed to get lost in there for quite some time (a good thing, mind you). What do you have in store for future additions to the site?

There’s always something coming. One thing that might interest your readers is we are adding player vs. player COMBAT to the Card Soldier Wars so things will be heating up over there. Also, we are expanding our avatar customization with a lot more uniforms and costumes so you can really trick out your avatars.

I am also planning to add a full on website for Hatter M that will feature the Hatter M Institute for Paranormal Travel. Since the Institute is responsible for tracking Hatter’s 13-year quest via maps, journals, photographs etc. there is a lot of fun to be had with it as well as a lot of information that readers can investigate on their own. I would like it to be a sort of website homage to the famous cutaway art of the Baxter Building so visitors will have a physical sense of entering the Institute and exploring the various departments as well as meeting the hardworking, eclectic staff. Check out this link if you haven’t seen the Baxter art.

Back to writing. Is grind involved in the writing process? Please explain.

Yes. Writing is work. Work is grind. You don’t always feel like doing it. It can be frustrating and days can go by where nothing great is happening on the page. But then you get a breakthrough, a thread of something starts to pop and you lose all common consciousness and are just in the flow. That’s usually when you get a stiff neck because you totally forgot to move your head for 5 hours. Basically, I think most people would agree that grind is involved in just about anything worth doing.

By contrast, what would you say is one of the most rewarding things about being a writer?

Two things have equal power. Sensing, knowing that you got it right. And having a reader come up to you, eyes all wide and excited, telling you they stayed up all night to finish your book.

When do you find time to write?

I just make time. I try to write as much by longhand in a notebook as I can so I never go to the computer and stare at a blank screen for 2 hours…wasting time loading pics on facebook and googling my own name…etc.. I’ve always got something sketched in and ready to try. Additionally, I set page quotas and deadlines and I meet them. It’s the only way I can do it. I can’t wait for the mood to hit or the planets to line up.

What current writing projects are you working on?

With the Looking Glass Wars trilogy completed it’s all about Royal Bodyguard Hatter M and his parallel story. Volume 2, Mad with Wonder, is available October 15 and I am working to have Volume 3, The Nature of Wonder, debut at the San Diego Con in July 2010. I have planned two more volumes so the full arc of Hatter’s search will be told in 5 volumes.

mad with wonderHow do you tend to escape these days?

I close my eyes.

Would you have any words of advice for the would-be-writers out there?

Well…I never really took anybody’s advice about writing so I guess I would just have to say go for it. See what you can do.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?

On October 15th, ArchEnemy the final book in my trilogy and Hatter M: Mad With Wonder will be available wherever books are sold, hope you enjoy them!

Also, the Looking Glass Wars Card Game will go live on October 15th as well. I hope your gamers will deal themselves into the deck.

Here is the link to sign up.

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Reading the text: Adam Biessener

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 8, 2009

Adam Biessener is an Associate Editor for Game Informer Magazine. Quite the fan of MMOs he discusses his gaming background, what life as a video game journalist is like and offers some helpful advice to the aspiring journalists out there.

*   *   *

game informerCould you explain what your involvement with Game Informer is and how you came to be working there?

I’ve been full-time editorial staff at GI since I started in September of ‘03. I had just finished my associate degree at a local community college as part of my second shot at the whole college thing when I saw the letter from the editor begging for someone, anyone, to come cover PC games for him. So I applied with a resumé and writing samples, got an interview, and got hired just like for any other job.

Since then, I’ve been covering PC games as best I can. The tasks of making a magazine — writing, researching editing, proofreading, etc. — are divided among the whole staff, so I’ve done a bit of pretty much everything in my time at GI. Previews, reviews, news, features, cover stories, we all kind of do it all. Things are moving in a good direction for us (c.f. the new website and the new hires, who are all fantastic), but until a few months ago I was the only person doing anything PC-related at GI. Obviously, there were some things that slipped through the cracks, and that’s always hard — I know it’s a video game magazine and all, but I take my job seriously and I hate it when I miss something, which is just about the worst way that you can fail as a journalist. At the same time, it’s really gratifying when I can take a smaller lower-profile title that I think is cool and interesting, like Majesty 2, and get it a little more exposure and coverage than it otherwise might get. Finding something new and cool and introducing readers to it is the best part of the job.

What would a typical work day for you look like?

First, it’s the news grind. Catching up on email, going through my RSS feed, trolling through news sites and all that gets me caught up to what’s going on in the morning. Depending on how interesting the morning’s news is and whether I have any other fires to put out, this takes anywhere from a half-hour to until lunch.

After that, it’s prioritizing tasks and jumping on them. I write a lot of emails and make a ton of phone calls to line up coverage for various things. Writing itself takes up a variable amount of time depending on…well, depending on whether it’s going quickly that day or not. Playing games for review. Playing preview builds if I can’t avoid it. Researching stories. If we’re in the last week before we send the book off to the printer, my day is pretty much wall-to-wall editing and proofreading.

Everybody thinks that the job is 90% playing games and 10% talking about them. It’s not; it’s a for-real job like anything else. A cool one, to be sure. But the vast majority of my time is spent making the magazine, not playing games.

Still, how many other professions get to have a bitchin’ SLI-enabled Alienware sitting at their desk so that they can make sure Aion can run at 1680×1050 with all the settings cranked?

How much interaction is there between the writers of the magazine?

Quite a lot, actually. We don’t use any freelancers or off-site staff, so we’re all in the office every day. We bounce ideas and copy off each other all the time before anything goes into editing. Everybody chats about what’s new and exciting in the worlds of gaming, sports, politics, and whatever else. It’s a fun place to work, and a great staff to work with.

Are you much of an MMO enthusiast?

Oh yeah, both personally and professionally. My job has moved more and more in an MMO-centric direction in the last few years, so I spend a ton of time reading, playing, and writing about MMOs. At home, no other MMO has taken me away from WoW for more than a few months at a time — I’ve got a great guild there, and we all know how hard it is to want to move away from your friends.

What was your introduction to MMOs and what was that experience like?

Sheesh, I guess it’d be Sierra On-Line at a friend’s house in elementary school years and years ago. It was obviously on his machine, though, so I didn’t get a ton of time with whatever that ancient MUD was. Also, I was into Star Control 2 at the time, which took all my attention by being TOTALLY AMAZING.

In college, I played a Wheel of Time MUD for a while. That was…interesting. Most of the users were more into RPing than playing the actual game, though, and that’s not my thing. I didn’t get well and truly sucked into an MMO until the WoW beta, which is kind of embarrassing when you think about it. Then again, my gaming resources were *extremely* limited prior to coming to work at GI in 2003, so the idea of paying a monthly subscription was a non-starter.

At your peak, how much time would you say you spent gaming? How about now?

My peak was probably high school, actually, pounding through every RPG I could get my hands on. Maybe when I was in one of my hardcore raiding phases in WoW, though. I’d say I spent at least 40 hours a week in-game during either of those.

Today I’ve got a lot more adult responsibilities, which cut into game time. If I can count time at the office, though, I’m probably still at at least 20 hours a week gaming.

Considering how many games you must play for review, are you still able to find enjoyment in gaming?

game informer2Absolutely. If I didn’t, I’d respec to a job with better income potential ;) But no, I still find games to lose myself in on a regular basis. I just spent nearly all of last weekend immersed in Final Fantasy XII (no internet at the new house yet), and it was an absolute blast. I’ve spent big stints in WoW, Aion, Champions, Majesty 2, Half-Life 2 Ep 2, Plants Vs. Zombies, and Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri recently. There are way too many great games out there to be bored.

Would you say there is grind in your profession? If so, please explain.

Not in the sense of grinding out a repetitive task day after day, no. One of the great things about this line of work is that you’re always moving on to something new and shiny.

Two things sort of tangentially qualify, though. At times, learning new game systems does get tiresome, especially in MMOs and strategy games. You don’t realize how much work it is to grok all of the interrelations between all the numbers behind the scenes until you have to do it twice a week. It can get mentally exhausting. It’s easy enough to pick up the next Call of Duty and know which end of the gun to point at the bad guy. Figuring out how to keep your economy running in Tropico or your downtime low in Aion is a different beast. Under normal circumstances, decoding systems is very much part of the fun of any complex game. When a run of strategy, simulation, or MMOs comes out and I have to do a ton of it in a relatively short timeframe, though, it can be rough.

Second, watching developers make the same mistakes (or just stupid decisions) over and over again and having to play through them can be pretty brutal. One major offender here is UI. For god’s sake, don’t make me redo keybindings for every damn character I make (I’m looking at you, Aion).

On the other side, what do you find to be most rewarding about your job?

Definitely finding an underappreciated or low-profile game and introducing my audience to it. No question. I love being able to shine a light on some developer’s good work and help them find an audience and get the credit they deserve.

Sure, there are some geek-gasm moments like interviewing Gabe Newell or Rob Pardo or Chris Taylor or whatever, but that’s just personal “squeeee!” stuff. Professional pride is a lot longer-lasting.

Are you pleased with how your contribution to the magazine has been received?

I guess I’m not really sure what this means. Do I feel that my audience is generally happy with the job I do? Based on the feedback I get from readers, yeah, folks seem to have a positive opinion on my work. Like anyone else in a consumer-facing role, I’ve had both very complementary things said about my work as well as some terribly bitchy things. Everybody loves to take shots at GI; it’s just the nature of the beast. When you are in the criticism business, though, you have to develop a thick skin for your sanity’s sake. If I took every mean thing anyone has said about my writing to heart, I’d be a wreck. Most of the negative feedback I get is of the “lol game informer is owned by gamestop ur just tryin to sell games” type, though, which is easy enough to ignore.

If you had a chance to do it all over again, would you do anything different?

That’s a tough question. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some moments here and there where I wanted out, but who doesn’t have those? Come on, though. I’ve got a pretty cool job that pays the bills and lets me be immersed in something I love. How many people get to say that?

What advice would you have for someone wanting to get into game journalism?

You have no idea how often I get this question. The answer is the same every time: Do it in your spare time, and go to school. Like any other profession, a college degree is a huge help in getting your resumé out of the pile and under someone’s eyes. And go start a blog or freelance and write about stuff. For one thing, it’ll make you better at writing. For another, you’ll have a body of work to show editors a) how well you write and b) that you love the subject matter enough to do it in your free time.

You wake up to a world where you are the head of a company developing an MMO. You have unlimited funds and resources available to you. Please describe the kind of game you would make.

Everyone should have it so easy! I’d stick to fantasy, since that’s what I love. I’d make the end-user interface and good netcode my absolute first priority, since EVERYONE BUT BLIZZARD DOES IT WRONG and it pisses me off (Aion is close, but still has some stupidities in there). I’d make art and “feel” my next priority, because your players are going to be spending a lot of time in your world and so you’d better make it somewhere that they want to be (WAR utterly failed at this, and it really hurt that game). I’d ignore PvP altogether, because I don’t love it and therefore wouldn’t make a good PvP game. I’d focus the vast majority of my design on creating small-group cooperative play (2-5 players) that feeds into a larger goal that guilds or alliances or factions or whatever are racing to complete (think opening the gates of Ahn’Qiraj, but not TERRIBLE IN EVERY WAY like that was. The concept is interesting though). I’d make dynamic invasion events that groups of players would have to band together to fight off (think the battle at Minas Tirith), which those previous goals feed into and help in the eventual battle. These battles would be the closest thing to raiding in my omega MMO.

Basically, I want a game where players compete indirectly instead of directly — think of it like European-style boardgames like Puerto Rico instead of American-style boardgames like Risk. At the same time, I want the playerbase to not be so segregated from each other that they may as well not be playing a large-scale MMO (This is my biggest beef with WoW-style raiding). I want there to be scheduled events that players can look forward to, and work toward preparing for — like raiding, but more inclusive. I want an evolving — not necessarily dynamic in the style of EVE, but definitely not static — world that I want to spend time in. Above all, I want a game that has meaningful small-group cooperative content that feels like it progresses some larger goal. That way I get the Pavlovian achievement satisfaction that WoW is so good at, I get to hang out with my friends and have some fun, and I get the sense of being part of a grand fantasy plot.

Is that too much to ask?

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