Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Posts Tagged ‘Blogger interview’

One shot: an interview with James Maliszewski

Posted by Randolph Carter on March 11, 2011

James Maliszewski is the prolific author of the “little-known” blog, Grognardia, which just happens to be a wonderful tribute to the RPG hobby. Here we discuss his blog, his humble gaming origins, his preference for knives, and what’s going on in his gaming world these days.

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Would you mind explaining what Grognardia happens to be about?

Grognardia is about “the history and traditions of the hobby of roleplaying,” as it says on its masthead, but that’s just a fancy way of saying that it’s about old school RPGs, with “old school” in this case generally meaning games written, published, and played before about 1984 or so, as well as some later games that were written based on similar principles as those earlier games.

How did you get started on this project?

Like most gamers my age, I entered the hobby playing D&D, which I played more or less continuously from 1979 till sometime in the early 90s, when I finally decided that I’d had enough and moved on to other games. For me, the 1990s were an awful time for D&D, when the game had strayed very far away from being what first attracted me to the hobby in the first place. So I spent much of that decade casting about for other RPGs that I hoped might bring me the same pleasure that D&D and older games had previously. Along the way, I found several I enjoyed for a time, but none of them “stuck,” if you know what I mean and I soon found myself more an observer of the hobby than an actual participant in it.

Had it not been for the release of the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 2000, I might have continued on in that way, or perhaps even drifted away from the hobby entirely. But 3e reignited my love affair with D&D and I played it quite intensely for about six years. It was at that time that I began to find WotC’s revision of the game increasingly at odds with my interests. 3e is a solid design but a very complex and rules-heavy one, as well as one more concerned with mechanical “balance” than matters to me. So, by 2006, I once again started to cast about for an alternative, eventually coming across various online old school communities, such as Dragonsfoot, the Knights & Knaves Alehouse, and, especially, Finarvyn’s Original D&D Discussion forums.

Connecting with the gamers in those communities reminded me of how much fun I’d had with the games I’d first played way back when. Rather than searching for a new game that might give me as much enjoyment as those older games had, why not just play the older games? It seems like an obvious thing in retrospect, but, believe me, it seemed like a radical concept at the time. Before long, I found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, you can go home again and I was spending far too much time thinking about and creating material for OD&D and other old school games. It was then that I decided to take the plunge and start up a blog where I could share the fruits of my newfound creativity.

That’s more or less how Grognardia was born.

I’m sure you get this a lot, but would you care to explain where the name Grognardia comes from?

“Grognard” is a French word meaning roughly “grumbler” and was reputedly an affectionate name given by Napoleon Bonaparte to his Old Guard, who were extremely loyal to him but also complained a lot about their living conditions. Back in the early 70s, John Young, who was the editor of Strategy & Tactics, a wargames magazine published by SPI, started referring to older wargamers as grognards, because, like the Old Guard, they’d been around a long time and they complained a lot, especially about some of the newer wargames coming out at the time. Perhaps because roleplaying grew out of wargaming, in time the term also came to be used to describe old school roleplayers as well, particularly those who dislike later editions of any game they played. The term is generally not used affectionately, but I still thought it’d be amusing to name my blog about old school gaming Grognardia.

So, if I met you at a cocktail party and started gushing on and on about how much I loved 4th edition D&D, would you stick a fork in me?

No — I favor knives for dealing with fans of 4th Edition.

More seriously, my answer is still no. I don’t have any love for 4th Edition, for a variety of reasons, but, if someone gets enjoyment out of the game, more power to him. We all have our preferences when it comes to our entertainments and there’s rarely any purpose in trying to argue that someone else’s preferences are wrong or somehow mistaken, even if they’re not ones you personally enjoy. Life’s too short to pick fights over roleplaying games.

Best I can tell, you are approaching 2,000 posts now with your blog and that’s in under 3 years. How have you managed to keep this pace up?

Assuming I keep up my current pace, yes, I should reach 2,000 posts very soon. Keeping up the pace is, frankly, pretty easy. I’ve been involved in the hobby for over 30 years, so I have literally a lifetime of experiences to mine for ideas. Then there are my regular features, such as the Pulp Fantasy Library and retrospectives on old school gaming products, as well as interviews, reviews, session reports from my ongoing OD&D campaign, and more. So, I’m rarely at a loss for topics, which helps me immeasurably in maintaining a regular schedule of posting. Plus, I just love what I’m writing about; it’s amazing how little effort it takes to write when you’re passionate about the subject matter.

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

It’s mostly a hobby. And, while I am the co-owner of a small RPG company called Rogue Games, through which I’ve published my sci-fi RPG, Thousand Suns, and an old school fantasy adventure, The Cursed Chateau, I try very hard not to use Grognardia as a platform for making money beyond the small change I occasionally get from my tip button (which I then use to buy old school products I really like). Lots of people mistakenly think I intend the blog to be a stepping stone to something more, but it’s not; it’s just a place where I can write everyday and share my thoughts on some topics near and dear to my heart. Now, it’s true, I’ve often attracted a fair bit of attention from outside roleplaying circles because of Grognardia, such as mentions in the L.A. Times and National Review Online, among others, and I do appreciate the kudos. However, that’s never been the driving force behind my blogging. I do this because I enjoy and I’ll continue so long as it continues to be fun.

Would you care to share a particularly enjoyable experience related to your blog?

Truthfully, there are too many to mention. I get a lot of emails from people who used to game and then, like many, fell away from the hobby as they entered adulthood. Then they stumbled on Grognardia and found their interest in roleplaying rekindled by some post or other that I wrote. I’ve heard from parents who were inspired to introduce their kids to RPGs and teachers who’ve done the same with their students, as well as from game designers who thanked me for speaking so highly of something they’d done in the past. Grognardia has really brought me a lot of satisfaction over the last three years and has brought me into contact with many, many people who share my love for older RPGs and the culture that surrounds them. It’s been a terrific experience.

How about one you’d care to forget?

Of course, but, fortunately, I’ve forgotten them.

Going back a bit, how were you introduced to the hobby and what was that experience like?

As I mentioned earlier, I was introduced to the hobby in late 1979. In August of that year, James Dallas Egbert III disappeared and early speculation suggested that his love of Dungeons & Dragons had something to do with it, though that later proved to be untrue. My father read a lot of newspaper articles about the disappearance and he was always talking about this “weird game.” So, my mother, thinking my father would like to see a copy of the game, bought one for him — the “Blue Book” version edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes. As it turned out, my father had no interest in the game itself and so the boxed set sat in my upstairs linen closet for several months.

That Christmas, a friend of mine received a boardgame called Dungeon! as a present. It was a very simple game about dungeon exploration and everyone in our gang of friends simply adored it, especially the creatures it included as adversaries, like black puddings and green slimes. Playing it reminded me of that “weird game” my mother had bought for my father in the summer and so I went home and opened it up, immersing myself in the 48-page rulebook it contained. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, because there was no board or pieces inside the box. There weren’t even any dice, since this was one of the sets that included laminated chits!

Still, I was incredibly intrigued by this game and my friends and I tried to play it as best we could. That’s when one of my friends’ older brother saw us and started laughing at us, since we were “doing it wrong.” He then took it upon himself to teach us “the right way” to play and we were grateful. After all, my friend’s brother spent a lot of his time yelling at us and generally behaving like a surly teenager toward us. That he was actually teaching us how to play this game he and his high school buddies played made it feel like we were being initiated into a secret society, which, in a way, we were. Back then, D&D — and roleplaying in general — was still a new and unusual thing and, while RPGs were rapdily entering public consciousness as a fad, they weren’t quite there yet in early 1980 and so we took some pride in being early adopters.

That experience was a powerful one for me and my friends. You have to remember that, in the late 70s and early 80s, personal computers and the Internet were still far in the future for most people. Our communal entertainments were mostly boardgames, sports, and various kinds of “make believe” activities. So, when we first encountered roleplaying games, it was like a revelation to us, especially when we found out that adults played this game too. My D&D boxed set even included the words “the original adult fantasy role-playing game” on its cover, which had a profound impact on us. D&D taught us that it was OK to hold on to your childhood fantasies as we grew older, a lesson hit home even more strongly when a friend’s father would act as Dungeon Master for us on occasion. I can’t stress enough how positive my early experiences of the hobby were, which probably explains why I’m still roleplaying three decades later.

After a friend’s older brother introduced me to D&D the summer after 7th grade, I fell in love with the game and played with a static group of  friends through most of high school. At some point girls and trying to act cool entered the picture and unfortunately my D&D days were numbered. I still look back on those days with great fondness. I’ve even tried to pick up the dice again on occasion, but it’s just not the same anymore.  The magic eludes me. How have you managed this and continue playing RPGs to this day? What’s the secret?

I’m not sure I have a “secret” other than simply playing and doing so as regularly as possible. I’m lucky, I guess, in that I have a corps of regular players whom I’ve known for a long time and a very tolerant family who lets us get together in our dining room to play. Even when I was most disenchanted with the hobby back in the 90s, I never completely fell away from it. Roleplaying has been a part of my life for so long that it’s hard to imagine not doing it. I’ve never felt any pressure to distance myself from the hobby, even when most of my friends were no longer interested in it, so that’s likely to have been a big factor in my ability to keep playing after all these years. If I didn’t have a steady crew of gamer friends with whom to play, I suspect I might well have abandoned it at some point too.

Would you say your passion for the hobby has had its ups and downs over the years?

Absolutely! As I mentioned previously, the 1990s were a low point in my passion for and involvement in the hobby. A combination of my getting older, being busy with graduate school, and, from my perspective anyway, a noticeable decline in the quality of the games I most enjoyed, all had a negative effect on me. Ironically, this largely coincides with the time during which I was most professionally involved as a writer of RPG materials. I worked as a freelance writer for a lot of different companies throughout the 90s and, while I’m still proud of a lot of what I wrote, I note with some embarrassment that very little of it was informed by actual play of the games involved. I still write, as I mentioned earlier, but it’s much more strongly connected to actual play, which I think makes for better, more useful gaming materials.

So, yes, the 1990s were a decidedly low point for me in terms of my interest in the hobby as an actual player, especially when compared to the 1980s. The turn of the century, though, and the reinvigoration of Dungeons & Dragons under Wizards of the Coast proved to be the perfect antidote to my gaming doldrums. My current gaming group started together in early 2000, when I was able to get an advance copy of Third Edition, which we played more or less non-stop through 2006 or thereabouts. Eventually, we all grew rather tired of Third Edition and found its complexities increasingly not to our taste. We might well have abandoned D&D entirely if it hadn’t been for my rediscovery of the versions I played as a younger man. That’s the great thing about tabletop roleplaying: these games never go out of date. That’s why my friends and I can enjoy ourselves with a game published in 1974

Has this passion rubbed off at all on any of your family?

Yes and no. My wife and my 11 year-old daughter have dabbled in roleplaying games after being introduced to them through me. They both have terrific imaginations and a keen interest in fantasy. but I don’t think either of them has yet found the “perfect” game that complements their personalities and interests. My daughter was briefly involved in my OD&D campaign, playing a young magic-user. She eventually stopped playing, though, because she found the danger-filled, swords-and-sorcery inspired nature of the sessions a bit too tense for her. My wife has played in a handful of brief, character-focused campaigns but hasn’t actively roleplayed in some time. So, I’d say they’re both very open to the idea of gaming.

My 8 year-old son, on the other hand, hasn’t shown a great deal of interest in the hobby. He likes looking at and playing with my miniatures and dungeon tiles, but that’s largely the extent of his interest. Of course, he was a very enthusiastic player in the Pokemon Jr. Adventure Game that I ran for the family a couple of years ago, so, again, I think he’s open to the idea of gaming. I try not to push my hobby on others, including my family. My feeling is that, if they’re interested in what they see me do at the dining room table with my friends, they’ll come and ask me more about it. And if they don’t, that’s fine by me too.

When and where do you find time to game these days?

These days I play in a theoretically weekly OD&D campaign at my home. I say “theoretically” because, real life being what it is — my regular players are all adults — we sometimes don’t meet every week. On average it’s been about once every other week, but we try to meet as often as possible.

As blasphemous as it may sound, I manage to scratch what roleplaying itches I get these days by immersing myself in MMORPGs. From what I understand, you’re not exactly a stranger to the genre. Would you care to talk a bit about your experience with World of Warcraft and how for someone who is known for championing “old school” RPGs, that might not have been the easiest thing to admit on your blog?

I don’t fully understand why so many tabletop roleplayers have an animus against computer games and MMORPGs in particular. Perhaps it’s because they feel that these entertainments have “stolen” their audience and reduced their hobby to a shadow of its former size in terms of popularity. For myself, I see computer gaming generally and MMOs in particular as a totally different, though clearly related, hobby to tabletop gaming. That’s why it baffles me a bit when it’s suggested, as you do, that there’s something odd about a fan of one hobby also enjoying the other. From my perspective, my enjoyment of World of Warcraft is no different than a bibliophile’s enjoyment of movies; there’s no reason I can’t like both.

Now, that said, I think it’s important to note, in my experience anyway, there’s not a heck of a lot of roleplaying going on in computer “RPGs” or MMORPGs. Certainly, these games can be extremely immersive and they often present extremely well-crafted stories that are quite diverting. However, they can’t compare to even a mediocre tabletop gaming session when it comes to interactivity and improvisation, two elements of what I most enjoy about tabletop roleplaying. Consequently, despite their popularity, I honestly don’t think there’s a lot that tabletop RPG design can learn from computer games or MMOs. The media are, in my view, too different from one another. What makes a good computer game or MMO will not make a good tabletop RPG and vice versa.

So, while I can understand why tabletop designers might be envious of, say, World of Warcraft’s immense worldwide subscriber base — and the profits that go with it — I think it’s a mistake to see reproducing them in analog form as a pathway to success. To my mind, what tabletop RPG companies need to do is twofold. First, they need to accept that the 80s are long gone and, barring some totally unpredictable shift in popular culture, the days of a tabletop RPG selling as well as they did back then are never coming back. Second, they need to play to the strengths of the tabletop medium rather than aping those of computer games and MMOs. Tabletop games are open-ended, flexible, and player-driven, things that no computer can reproduce. As much as I enjoy computer games with some degree of player choice, like, say, Mass Effect, they offer only a fraction of what a tabletop RPGs offer me, which is why I’d never abandon tabletop for a purely virtual experience.

Outside the realm of RPGs are there any other kinds of games you enjoy playing and would feel safe mentioning here?

James Maliszewski. He says he’s a knife man, but I’m getting some mixed signals here.

Besides MMOs and other video games — I especially enjoy playing shooters with my friends — I enjoy boardgames, some of which I play with my children. Labyrinth, Blokus, and the LEGO-based Pirate Code are all favorites of ours. I’m very fond of Risk and Risk 2210 A.D. and Diplomacy is a game I dearly love, though I haven’t played in quite some time, unfortunately. I wish I could say I’m a “real” wargamer, but I’m not and never have been. This applies to miniatures wargaming as well.

What advice would you give someone who was interested in playing an RPG but had never been exposed to them before?

Therein lies a big problem for the hobby: if you haven’t been exposed to RPGs before, chances are you never will be. Gone are the days when tabletop gaming was a big fad and it was possible to go into any book or toy store and pick up a copy of a wide variety of roleplaying games. Fortunately, all you really need is someone else who’s already roleplaying, which is not much different than it was in the glory days of the hobby. In fact, I remain convinced that the best way to get into roleplaying is to be introduced to it by someone who already plays it.

I differ from a lot of people in that I don’t think what the hobby really needs is a good introductory roleplaying game available in every book and toy store, though that’d certainly be great. Rather, I think what we need are more gamers who are willing to share their hobby with interested newcomers. So, if you’re someone with little experience of RPGs who wants to learn more, I can’t think of a better way to do so than to seek out people still actively involved in the hobby. Rulebooks and intro sets and websites can only get you so far; what’s really needed is face-to-face interaction with people actively involved in the hobby.

And last but certainly not least, when was the last time you rolled a 20-sided die? I’m guessing it’s been a while, so if you need some time to think about that, go right ahead.

A while? Hardly. Given that I’ve had a regular OD&D campaign going since January 2009, odds are good I’ve rolled more than a few D20s in any given week.

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Valhalla unplugged: an interview with Matt Drake

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 14, 2010

Matt Drake is the author of the board game blog, Drake’s Flames.  Not exactly one to mince words, Matt discusses his blog, the board gaming hobby, his life-long affair with it, and the variety of gaming he tends to enjoy these days.  This interview reads like one big Hallmark greeting card.  Enjoy.

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Would you mind describing what your blog, Drake’s Flames, happens to be about?

I started writing game reviews around 2000, mostly because a friend of mine was scoring free White Wolf splat books for writing crappy reviews for RPG.net, and I figured that if he could do it, I could. After a few years of grinding out reviews for scraps, I thought writing for a print rag would make me legit, so I wrote for Knucklebones Magazine for the entire time they were in business.

But the thing I discovered as I was writing for money was that it sucked to have an editor (though I’m sure some of my readers would maintain that I could use one now, especially the anal-retentive jackholes at BoardGameGeek who come down with bouts of chronic constipation every time I use the word ‘retarded’). I wanted to write my way, no holds barred, entertaining and readable and a little bit crass. There are enough dry, mechanical, antiseptic reviews out there already. I wanted to have something fun.

So that’s what I did with Drake’s Flames. Granted, my kind of fun includes whiskey, fistfights and women of low moral character, but I like it, and if nobody else does, well, there’s no gun to their head. I figured that if there were people out there like me, at least a few people would follow along and we could have fun together.

That was three years ago. I’m still having fun. Sometimes I write about other stuff I’ve done, like playing paintball or visiting a botanical garden, and sometimes I just rant about things that irritate me. I try like hell to update three times a week, and I review a lot of games. I don’t always get them for free, and there’s a good-sized stack of publishers who hang up if I call them (don’t call a game a transvestite if you’re not ready to get a little bit blacklisted). But as long as I’m still having fun, I don’t see a reason not to do it.  And I am having fun.

With the huge variety of gaming experiences to be had out there, why board games?

Board games are fun. You can hang out with your friends, stretch the ol’ brainpower, and sometimes play out a story. There are thousands of games to choose from, so unless you have the mental acuity of a carrier pigeon, you can find something you’ll enjoy. Of course, just because I like board games doesn’t mean that’s all I play. I play traditional card games, sports every now and then, bar games, video games, and even the occasional roleplaying game. I like everything. So why play board games? Hell, why not?

What was your introduction to the genre?

My old man was a gamer from way back. I have been playing games since before I can remember. I learned how to play chess before I finished first grade (though I didn’t beat my dad until I was in junior high). I can’t remember a time when I didn’t like games. I cut my teeth on Risk and Space Invaders. My introduction to games started before I learned how to walk.

Would you say there was a pivotal moment or perhaps a game that turned you into a board game enthusiast?

No, there wasn’t one single event, outside being born to a family that played a lot of games. We played Canasta and poker and Monopoly, and I picked up all the wacky hobby-style games I could get my hands on. I used to play wargames with my old man when I was in high school. No one thing made me a game nerd. It would take a lynchpin event to make me give it up, though.

What happens to be your favorite genre of board game and could you mention some of your favorite titles?

I once got a few hundred game nerds riled up when I said that real men play games where people die, but just because it made some people a little menstrual doesn’t mean it’s not true. I like games that recreate violence, though my favorites are dungeon crawls. These aren’t always fantasy games, either – Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel had cybernetic commandos storming demon HQ with machine guns, and Space Hulk is all about a team of armored marines taking on hideous aliens in a derelict starship. But games like HeroQuest and Warhammer Quest are definitely ripped right out of a bad D&D novel, with orcs and wizards and very angry barbarians, and those are some of my all-time favorites. You get to kill a ludicrous number of bad guys, and tell a story at the same time (though it does tend to be a rather short and brutal story).

Of course, the games I just mentioned are out of print and hard to find, but there are still people making cool dungeon crawlers. Incursion has Nazi zombies in an underground lab, and Claustrophobia brings back the demons with a very non-standard hunt through the tunnels of Hell. In Last Night on Earth, the dungeon is the whole town, and you spend the game battling the mindless walking dead in a game that plays out like a B-rated zombie movie. You can score all of those right now, and if you shop at the right stores, you can get them way below retail.

Who do you tend to play with and how often do you play?

I have two teenage kids and a wife, and we break out games all the time. We’ll spend one night taking turns playing console games (my wife is playing Fable II, my daughter likes Animal Crossing, and my son and I are playing Midnight Club: LA). Then the next night we’ll break out Defenders of the Realm or Dominion or whatever else we’re enjoying at the time, and spend a couple hours completely unplugged (unless I get an email on my Blackberry or my daughter is busy texting her friends).

I also have a group that meets every Saturday, created for the exclusive purpose of helping me play the games I have to review. One really good friend is my go-to guy for two-player games, but everyone in the group is a really good sport. We have played some absolutely horrible games, and aside from the profanity you might expect when playing a game so ugly and boring that you would rather have a colonoscopy than play another turn, everybody just takes it in stride.

Do you happen to collect board games? If so, roughly how many do you have in your collection?

Well, I have a lot of games, but I don’t exactly collect them. They show up at my house and I play them, and then they stay there because I don’t get around to donating them to the Boys & Girls Club until I start having to store them under the sofa. I probably have a few hundred games in my office right now, but that’s just because I haven’t purged in a while. I don’t collect games, exactly. I just keep the ones I like.

Do you ever supplement your board gaming with video games (console or PC)?

Supplementing is kind of an odd choice of words. It sounds like I take a regular dose of board games, and sometimes use video games as a suppository. It’s not like that at all. I play whatever I want. I like board games, and I like collectible card games, and roleplaying games, and basketball and baseball and video games. In fact, I’ve reviewed several video games for Drake’s Flames, including GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption.  If I had to choose one kind of game over all the others, I would find the guy making me choose and punch him in the kidney until he peed blood. Then I would play whatever the hell I want.

Would you say there is any guilt involved in doing so?

Why on Earth would I feel guilty? It’s not like I’m cheating on board games. If I start banging hookers, I’ll feel guilty for cheating on my wife, but games don’t give a crap. You can’t hurt a game’s feelings. Play what you like, and if anyone gives you grief for it, tell him to blow a goat.

Do you see any reason why a gamer needs to choose between one or the other?

There’s no reason I can imagine why anyone would have to choose one form of entertainment over another, unless one is wicked expensive or illegal. Like, if your ideal good time is an eight-ball and Swedish twins charging $1000 a night in a motel that charges by the hour, that might be a good reason to stick with board games. But if I want to spend Saturday playing in a softball league, Saturday night sniping chumps in Halo, and Sunday afternoon playing Cosmic Encounter with my family, I can’t see a downside.

If you were surrounded by a group of diehard video gamers at a cocktail party and they discovered your board gaming tendencies, what would you tell them about the genre in its defense as you were dangled head first over the balcony?

I would say, “If my Blackberry falls out of my shirt pocket and breaks, one of you assholes is going to take a beating.” Then I would tell them to mind their own business.  That, or they could come out on Saturday and play a game with me. I don’t defend board gaming because I don’t see a reason I should. I don’t like watching football, but it doesn’t mean I have a problem with grown-ass men who paint their faces and throw bowls of popcorn when overpaid, felonious strangers in shoulder pads manage to catch a pigskin on television. If that’s their bag, it’s none of my business.

In an age where so many children are brought up on a steady diet of electronic games, do you see board gaming in danger of becoming a lost pastime?

a flaming Matt Drake

I’m not saying board games are as good as sex, but for the sake of argument, let’s say people all over the world suddenly have free access to USB-connected vibrators that interact with their online porn. Would the human race suddenly quit having sex? No! It just means there would be a jump in the sale of water-based lube and antibacterial soap. People don’t quit doing what they like just because there’s something else they like.

There are literally hundreds of board games released every year. Just counting releases from the top ten publishers, you’re looking at a steady release schedule of 10-20 games a month, and if you add in the small press entrepreneurs and the up-and-comers, that number more than doubles. GenCon and BGG Con attract larger crowds every year, and both feature an astounding number of board games. The hobby isn’t in any danger.  Board games are fun. Just because you like playing Final Fantasy MCXXXVII doesn’t mean you can’t still get a kick out of a game of Agricola.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to give the board gaming hobby a try?

Most of America already plays board games. Try and find someone who never played Monopoly, or Sorry, or Risk. Everybody knows Chutes & Ladders or Candyland, even though both of those are horrible games. If someone really wants to try board games, they probably already have. Find some games and play them. That’s a good place to start.

Summary

Pros:

Matt tends to speak his mind.

With his knack for colorful language and countless sexual references, Grinding to Valhalla should benefit quite nicely from increased traffic due to keyword searching.

Cons:

Matt tends to speak his mind.

Not for those who don’t enjoy whiskey, fistfights and woman of low moral character.

If you’re easily offended and made it this far, chances are you’ve already read the entire interview and are scarred for life.

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Valhalla unplugged: an interview with Mike Betzel

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 12, 2010

Although his roots are more in video games, Mike Betzel is very much an avid board gamer these days.  His board game blog Beware the Gazebo is certainly a testament to this.  Here Mike discusses his blog and answers a range of questions about the board game hobby and the gamer culture surrounding it.

Would you mind describing what your blog, Beware the Gazebo, happens to be about?

Beware the Gazebo is my personal dumping ground for thoughts on board games.  I first started in January 2008 after a game of Die Macher when I realized I had a lot of thoughts on the game rattling around in my brain.  I’ve always enjoyed writing and thought starting a gaming blog would be a great way for me to work on my writing skills while organizing my thoughts on board games.

My main goal with the blog isn’t to teach you how to play a game but to explain what I think works and doesn’t work in a game’s design.  I summarize rules or frame them in the context of a mechanic or design principle that I enjoy or dislike, which I find far easier to digest than verbose rules explanations.  As you read you’ll hopefully get a feel for my gaming preferences which helps you further frame my opinions, letting you come to your own conclusions on which games are right for you!

I can’t say I’ve ever had a run-in with a gazebo before—at least not sober.  Why should we beware of them?

Gazebos are dangerous, unassuming creatures.   They will lure you in with their inviting shelter and beautiful architecture, then BAM they catch you and eat you.

You’ve been warned.

With the huge variety of gaming experiences to be had out there, why board games?

Board games offer a type of experience you often don’t find elsewhere in entertainment.  First, board gaming is often a social hobby.  You can find solo games – particularly in the war game genre – but most board games are designed to be played with others.  It works for families, friends and for meeting new people.  At the same time there are plenty of fantastic solo games for those that don’t have an outlet for gaming or prefer to play by themselves.  Second, the tactile nature of board gaming is undeniable.  Loads of artwork, wooden cubes, plastic miniatures, cardboard tiles, buckets of dice… there’s something very satisfying about the physicality of board games.  Finally, board games generally engage your brain, something often lacking in today’s world of entertainment.

What was your introduction to the genre?

As a child I remember playing many of the standard games others played in their youth: Monopoly, Battleship, chess, checkers, Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, Balderdash and the like.  I have fond memories of playing several week-long games of Monopoly with my older brother.  At the end of the evening we’d tape all the pieces down and resume the next day.  My favorite game growing up was Stratego; I loved the tactical play and mind games with your opponent.

I never would have considered myself a board gamer growing up, though, and once I went off to college my board gaming mostly stopped.  There were a couple of games of Axis and Allies on my dorm room floor and I often walked through Games by James in the mall thinking the board games looked interesting but it wasn’t until later that I really discovered modern board games.

Would you say there was a pivotal moment or perhaps a game that turned you into a board game enthusiast?

Heroscape.  2005.  There was a Toys R’Us I frequented that had an awesome Heroscape display.  Every time I walked past I would stop and stare; it was one of the coolest-looking things I had ever seen.  Modular hex-shaped terrain, sweet pre-painted miniatures of all types… it was a thing of beauty.  I’m not quite sure why Heroscape’s look resonated with me as I didn’t even really know what miniatures games or modern board games were at the time.  I’m a big fan of fantasy and science fiction, though, and Heroscape certainly melds those two genres together.  Eventually I broke down, bought it and introduced it to a friend I thought might enjoy it as well.  We instantly fell in love and dove in deep.

While exploring the online Heroscape community I discovered BoardGameGeek and the wider world of board games.  Not long after I found out one of my co-workers regularly played board games with some friends.  It was all down hill from there!

What happens to be your favorite genre of board game and could you mention some of your favorite titles?

I’m a sucker for big, long epic games filled with theme and cool components.  Runewars, Twilight Imperium and Britannia are three of my favorites.  I really enjoy the feeling you get of building up, watching the face of the map change as armies battle and exchange territories and hoping for a little bit of luck in the dice.  Unfortunately it’s not easy to get four to six hour games on the table on a regular basis.  If we have the time, though, I’d never pass up playing any of those.

When it comes to slightly less epic experiences I often enjoy games heavy on tactics and a touch of luck.  Railroad Tycoon (with the Europe or England maps), El Grande, Homesteaders, Dominion, Shogun and Ra are all fantastic.  I’m also a huge fan of cooperative and semi-cooperative games like Battlestar Galatica, Saboteur, Pandemic and Defenders of the Realm.

Who do you tend to play with and how often do you play?

I have two groups I play with regularly and was introduced to both through friends.  One group plays pretty much every Monday, the other usually gets together later in the week although we usually don’t play every week.  We’ll also get the occasional weekend game in and I’ll get together with a buddy for some two player games from time to time as well.  I’ve met lots of great people and made some very good friends through gaming!

I’ve lived in Madison, WI for the past six years and there’s also a fantastic board game community here.  Outside of my main game groups there are plenty of opportunities to play games with others.  I don’t do much gaming outside of my group of friends due to time but it’s great knowing I’ll have no problem finding people to play with!

Do you happen to collect board games?  If so, roughly how many do you have in your collection?

I certainly have a healthy board game collection – 111 not counting expansions according to BoardGameGeek – but I wouldn’t consider myself a collector.  I’ve done a fair amount of trading games via BoardGameGeek; if I haven’t played a game in awhile I’ll likely trade it off for something else.  I don’t see value in keeping games around that aren’t hitting the table and I don’t have the desire to seek out hard-to-find games simply for the sake of owning them.

However, I am a little crazy when it comes to organizing my games.  I think I may be single-handedly keeping the plastic baggie industry going and I love Plano boxes.  Time spent setting up and tearing down games is time not spent playing so I like to organize as much as possible.  My friends now refer to organizing your games as “Betzel-izing”.  Most game inserts are useless for actually keeping the components so I toss most of those out.  That probably makes most collectors cringe.

Do you ever supplement your board gaming with video games (console or PC)?

Absolutely! Video games were my first true love. I have faint memories of playing our Pong machine when I was very little, but the Atari 2600 and Apple //c were my real introductions to gaming.  I’m not sure there are words to describe my excitement when we got the Atari 2600 for Christmas; Pac-Man never looked so good or played so well, even though that was such a terrible port!

I certainly spent a lot of time with Pitfall, Yars’ Revenge, Night Driver, Boxing, Dig Dug, Space Invaders and many more on the Atari 2600, but The Bard’s Tale series of RPGs on the Apple //c really cemented my love for video games (and all things fantasy).  I was probably around 7 years old when I first played the original Bard’s Tale and was instantly hooked.  It not only showed me video games could have a level of depth I never imagined but also got me interested in programming.  I spent hours with hex editors and modding tools giving my characters all the best gear and maxing out their levels!  That soon led me to spending hours coding BASIC programs from Byte Magazine and teaching myself Pascal in middle school so I could make a breakout-style game.  Video games are really the reason I pursued a career as a computer programmer.

Now I still play plenty of video games.  I own all the current generation consoles and recently put together a new gaming PC.  My video game time is a little more limited these days but I’m always trying out the newest releases and love following the industry.  Right now I’ve been spending a lot of time with Civilization V and Red Dead Redemption and am really looking forward to Rock Band 3, the Ico/Shadow of the Colossus high-def remakes and The Last Guardian.

Would you say there is any guilt involved in doing so?

Certainly no more than participating in any other hobby.  The only thing that has changed is I tend to avoid MMOs these days.  I was massively hooked on the original EverQuest during and after college but now I don’t enjoy that level of time sink.  I don’t like games that are difficult to walk away from at a moment’s notice when I’m at home so MMOs generally don’t fit my lifestyle any more.  I still dabble in them from time to time but just can’t get myself to dive in again.

Do you see any reason why a gamer needs to choose between one or the other?

Not at all!  I think there’s a lot of common ground between video games and board games.  They share some commonalities while filling completely different niches.  In fact, if you are currently only into one or the other I highly recommend checking out the “other side”; there’s almost guaranteed to be something for you.

If you were surrounded by a group of diehard video gamers at a cocktail party and they discovered your board gaming tendencies, what would you tell them about the genre in its defense as you were dangled head first over the balcony?

Yikes!  Remind me to never go to the same cocktail parties you do.  Seems like you hang with a rough crowd!

I’d tell them that many video game mechanics and designs owe a lot to board games.  Sid Meyer may have never created Civilization were it not for board games.  Fantasy roleplaying games may have never seen the light of day without Dungeons and Dragons which was born from classic historical war games.  Even today video games draw inspiration from modern board games; I know the designers of Sins of a Solar Empire specifically mentioned Twilight Imperium as a source of inspiration.

Also, as mentioned before, the two have much in common.  If you like deep strategic video games there are many board game equivalents.  Fans of twitch shooters may get a kick out of fast dexterity games or highly tactical games.  RPG enthusiasts will find many adventure style board games to be right up their alley.

Finally, platforms like the iPhone are boosting the popularity of digital board game conversions.  The Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Roll Through the Ages, Kingsburg, Medici and many others are finding much success with their digital versions.

In an age where so many children are brought up on a steady diet of electronic games, do you see board gaming in danger of becoming a lost pastime?

Not at all.  Board games are seeing great success recently as popularity grows and higher production values become more feasible at lower cost.  There’s something about the tactile and social nature of board games that I think will always hold appeal.  Humans have been playing board games for thousands of years and I see no reason for that to change.

If anything I think we’ll start to see further convergence between the two.  The Microsoft Surface is a great example of technology that can enhance board games.  I see a future where it will become increasingly difficult to draw the line between video games and board games, which I think is very cool.  There will still be plenty of room and demand for classic styles of both but over time I think it’s inevitable the two will come together.

I also think that board games may engage your mind in ways video games do not.  They help strengthen critical thinking skills and I think the tactile nature of board games more strongly reinforces that for certain types of thinkers and learners.  I fully believe that keeping your brain active is critical to mental health as you age and I think both video games and board games are great ways to stay engaged.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to give the board gaming hobby a try?

A pensive Mike Betzel

Go for it!  BoardGameGeek is one of the greatest online resources.  Spend some time there browsing different styles of games and get a feel for what looks interesting to you.  Once you’ve seen a bit of what’s out there, find out if if there are any local game hobby stores in your area.  There’s certainly something to be said for seeing game boxes in person and maybe even getting a chance to get a demonstration.

Many people feel they have nobody to play with, but I’d challenge them on that.  Start by asking your friends!  You may be surprised how many people love gaming but never discuss it.  Find a game that looks to fit your common interests and give it a shot, you may be pleasantly surprised.

If you are struggling to get enough friends on board, head back to that game store and see if they have a board game night.  I’ve discovered there are far more people than I ever imagined out there who love board games.  Do a little bit of research and you are bound to find a great group of people to game with.

Still struggling?  Start looking up regional gaming conventions (that list is certainly just a starting point); there’s probably one closer than you think.  Don’t forget to look at local video game or comic book conventions as they often have associated board gaming.  No luck?  See if you can find the time and resources to head out to one of the larger conventions like Origins, GenCon or PAX (where apparently board gaming is huge).  You’ll have no problem meeting all sorts of like-minded gamers.

I was leaving work one day, had just received some new board games and got on the elevator with games in tow.  There was a man already in the elevator, probably from one of the law firms on the floors above based on his attire.  He looked at the stack of board games under my arms and commented on how he plays games with some friends.  I asked what games and he responded with Agricola!  Here’s some random guy in the elevator who knows about one of the hottest modern board games on the market.

Seven years ago I couldn’t have named a board game designed in the last ten years.  Now nearly every week I hang out with friends, have a cold beverage and engage my brain with some cardboard on the table.  Does a hobby really get much better than that?

Thanks very much, Mike.

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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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One shot: Roger Travis

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 4, 2009

An interview with Roger Travis, associate professor of classics and Mediterranean studies at the University of Connecticut and Living Epic: Video Games in the Ancient World blogger.

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Roger TravisMMO community connection:

Living Epic: Video Games in the Ancient World

What do you do professionally?

I’m an associate professor of classics and ancient mediterranean studies at the University of Connecticut.

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

I’ve gamed since I was very small; played D&D starting at age 10 and videogames since pong. I played NES in college but stopped in grad school and came back to gaming first with Age of Empires on the PC and then with Halo on the XBox. My favorite games these days are Lord of the Rings Online and the Bethesda and Bioware RPG’s.

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

LOTRO is for me a way of living the fantasy worlds I loved so much as a child, and of reawakening in myself the ancient world I study. I’m pleased to have brought a great many friends into the game, and so playing is a wonderful social experience as well.  We have a weekly fellowship of Latin teachers, for example!

Would you mind talking a little bit about the Video Games and Human Values Initiative and what you hope to accomplish with it?

The idea of the initiative is to start talking about video games in a way that assumes from the start that they are ancient and valuable, and to go from there to measure and strengthen their vast potential to affect culture in a positive way.

How would you say videogames have influenced you as a teacher?

This semester it’s becoming clear that they’ve changed me forever. My experience in games has shown me that learning, which is always an adventure already, can be a completely transformative and imaginative adventure as well.

You are currently using something known as Operation KTHMA in one of your classes. Would you mind explaining what this is?

I believe that Operation KTHMA is the first course ever taught completely as a role-playing game. My students play as college students sent back by an all-powerful Demiurge (me) to 431 BCE, a crucial year for the birth of history and indeed for the birth of civilization as we know it. Their mission is to save Western Civilization by interpreting Herodotus and Thucydides correctly. That goal follows from an insight I had over the summer that instructional design and game design share certain absolutly crucial elements: both are about learning, and both are about putting that learning to use, whether in the real world or in the imagination. The goals and objectives of the game of Operation KTHMA are exactly the same as the goals and objectives of the course CAMS 3212, as which it is “disguised.”

Okay, now wait a minute. You’re a college professor who actually supports gaming and is even trying to find ways of integrating them into the classroom. I had a professor like you once…but then my alarm clock went off. I’m curious to know though what kind of opposition and/or criticism your vision has met with. Would you mind discussing that a bit?

Not at all. :D I’m very lucky to work in a small section of a big foreign languages department. That means that I get to decide what to work on and how to teach. Truthfully, the field of classics is actually always looking for new ways to bring itself alive—or at least there are always certain classicists like that. The old-fashioned ones tend to ignore us, perhaps in the hope that we’ll go away.

Speaking of dreams, what could you envision as being the ideal MMO for use in a teaching environment?

It would be an engine, I think, with a toolbox full of things like hoplite armor. Or, if we’re defining it down into something I could command someone to build, I think I’d have them build an MMO whose world was the Greek islands around 800BCE, with session-play instances a la LOTRO that transported you into various heroic epic stories. I have to say I’ve got a million of ‘em, though!

Who would you chose to be your GM for an epic RPG campaign?

A) Homer

B) Herodotus

C) Virgil

If Homer were a real guy, I’d choose him! Herodotus and Virgil are too focused on their own agendas for my tastes, so let me say the “Homer” (that is, the bard) of the Odyssey would be my choice.

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

Start demanding that your courses be taught as games. We need a revolution.

And last but not least, when was the last time you rolled a 20-sided dice?

I’ve been using d6’s for KTHMA, but I actually just ordered a big bag of every kind of dice so I’ll roll a d20 again soon. The real answer to the question, though, is probably 1989.

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One shot: Adam Martin

Posted by Randolph Carter on September 30, 2009

Community connection:

T=Machine

You’ve mentioned that you’ll be speaking at GDC next year. Do you know of any topics you plan to speak on?

I’ve submitted a proposal for using Entity / Component Systems in MMO development / game-engines. This could also be called “using functional programming to write your game engine”.

There was a prediction made at the LOGIN conference you attended back in May that the iPhone would become the dominant gaming platform within the next five years. What would be your take on this?

Yep, that was my prediction :)   I still believe in it wholeheartedly.  I’ve noticed over the past 6 months that more and more game developers seem to be “getting it” and at least dipping their toes in the waters (my impression is that it took much longer than this for people to commit to Wii development, by contrast – but note this is a very unscientific claim: there is a huge amount of selection bias in the people whose activities I’m aware of!)

Do you see the iPhone becoming a viable platform for MMO development?

Yes, I’m working on a multiplayer realtime dungeon-exploration game at the moment. It’s just a test project at the moment (although I intend to launch it on the App Store soon), and as much as anything it’s a chance for me to re-create (and then re-play!) the bits I liked from classic FPS RPGs (Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder, Moraff’s World, etc).

The main difficulty is the GUI / interface, which is fundamentally different from everything learned about RPG interfaces on PC for the past 10 years.

Once that’s done, and launched, it’ll be a good point to start considering larger, more challengine iPhone MMOs…

Do you have a particular genre of game you prefer to develop?

Casual, because I like creating new gameplay, testing it, tweaking it, showing it to 10 people (and watching them play) all in one day.

Online, because … well, why would you ever want to work on a NON online game in this day and age?

Given unlimited funds and resources, what kind of game would you most like to make?

I’d make a large number of smaller games. I think spending a lot of money on a single game is self-evidently foolish, unless you know you’ll only ever be able to / allowed to make one game in your life. There are valid arguments around spending a lot of money on sequels, but even there it’s not without great risk. Of course, it works for some people, and they’re welcome to it – but I’d rather make lots of profit, or make a great game, neither of which tend to come out of huge budgets.

There are big companies whose stated policy is to only ever make the most expensive MMOs possible. I’ve tried working that way, seen the arguments from the inside, and it left me convinced that it’s not the right way for me personally.

In your infinite spare time you also appear to blog. What is your blog about?

Good question. I don’t really know yet. But I’d probably guess something like:

“Trying to be better – on a meta-level – at creating games, using technology, and building businesses. Preferably all three at once.”

The “meta-level” part is critical; most of the things I write about are more aimed at helping you to find better processes that make a wide range of things you’re doing all individually better. I try to steer clear of too many precise detailed things (except for bug fixes, workarounds, and documentation for projects that lack it – those things are worth doing in detail!). I prefer to try and find a few large underlying issues that we can solve or improve to get disproportionately large benefits.

In an ideal world, I’d like my blog to be the kind of thing that Tech Directors and CTO’s in the games industry found particularly useful.  The people who have to think a little bit more generically, a little bit more strategically, and a little bit more long-term than pure programmers.

Also … these are people who are still fundamentally involved in creating and delivering product. They haven’t become pure managers (yet). So … the nature of that product, and the practicalities of delivering it, still resurface for them on a frequent basis.

Why do you blog?

Because there’s so much good stuff I learn from others, or invent, or discover, or know … and I don’t have time to go around the world finding all the people who’d benefit from the individual bits and giving it to them personally. Blogging is the source/faucet of a distributed info-dissemination system that routes your valuable info to people who benefit from it.

Also … it’s sometimes *really helpful* to me to be able to join a company and see some old issue come up that I’ve already blogged.  Instead of starting meetings and writing explanations, and phoning people … I can just send around a link to the original blog post.  *Then* we can start the meetings, and conf calls, etc – but at least this way some of the people will have self-educated a bit on the topic, and I won’t have to repeat myself. OR … they’ll point out what a raving idiot I am, and I get the benefit of their superior knowledge and/or experience teaching me a valuable lesson ;).

(useful to myself too, sometimes, when I forget the finer details of something I previously researched in detail – it’s like a live, online, mind-dump)

Finally … and perhaps most valuable to me personally (as opposed to readers), is the fact that what I blog is constantly under peer-review. When I say something stupid, people line up to tell me so, and explain why. When I omit something important, ditto. This is great. Sometimes it’s a slip-up my end, but often it’s that I simply was unaware, ignorant, or ill-informed. All those commenters refine the content and help me better understand the things I thought I knew (like a mini version of Wikipedia, in some ways).

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

Absolutely a hobby. I can’t see a way in which it would ever become something more.

But also … in some ways a lot more important than “hobby” implies; I think it’s an essential part of your personal professionaldevelopment.

e.g. I get annoyed when startup founders stop blogging because they’re “too busy to blog”; IMHO that’s one of the best times to blog. You need the benefit of other people’s perspectives telling you if you’re smoking crack (people outside your own team). You also are living in a hyper-fast bubble, and will be learning 10 times as much as ordinary people every day … so that would be a damn good time to be sharing some of it.

Stepping back a bit, what was your introduction to MMOs and what was that experience like?

I was one of the longer-term members of the MUD-DEV mailing list in the late 1990’s, where a large proportion of the designers, researchers, and developers of MUDs and MMO’s hung out. 

The list was extremely heavily moderated, and extremely high signal-to-noise ratio. When the list died in the mid 2000’s, everyone exploded off into the blogosphere, but a lot was lost never to be regained.

In game terms, I started playing MUD’s with Avalon, one of the oldest commercial MUDs, based in London.

I started playing MMO’s with Ultima 7, which played like a high-quality 2008-era MMO in solo mode, with no raiding.

I guess what you really want is my first “real” MMO that I played “too much”. I tried to get into beta UO, but my UK net connection was too poor. I saw EQ ruin people, so I played it casually for a while, but not for long. In the end, by coincidence (I went to the same University as the author) it was Runescape, back when it was about 5,000 players. I’d played it even earlier, but didn’t like it much. It was attempt 2 that hooked me.

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

Never really had one, although luring griefers to their death via social engineering tricks (pretending to hate them, then gradually caving in, and offering bribes, and getting all whiny and apologetic, while leading them into a very-high-level zone, and standing and laughing while they learn the meaning of corpse retrieval) … probably comes close.

I don’t really see anything about MMO’s today to make you go “wow”, not once you’ve played games like Ultima 7, GTA IV, and Oblivion, and have developed a raging thirst for a “true” wide open world – which no MMO has come even vaguely close to so far.

Those are all “oh wow” games. I’ve not yet played an MMO that was (and I’ve played a lot of them).

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

MMO gaming is a small fraction of my gaming. I have *extensively* played thousands of different games – nearly all of which I could describe to you the core game design, and compare and contrast to at least 5 other games, all off the top of my head.

I find this helps a lot when working on and evaluating games.  Especially at an early stage, when you have to see the potential, and especially at a late stage, when you’re looking for extra ways to add polish.

It also helps vastly when you’re working in a publisher, seeing incoming pitches, and you can ask really difficult questions to test how thought-out the project is. If they’re (accidentally – or maliciously!) reproducing an existing game you’ve played, you can quickly ask the questions they SHOULD have thought of, but might not have. Although that’s a really niche usefulness!

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

Does playtesting your own games count? I’m running at probably 1-5 hours a week right now. For what’s it worth, I (deliberately) don’t own a TV, so the time that other people spend watching TV I’m either playing games or doing something more active. I’ve got nothing against TV – I grew up with it – but it’s just a lot less rewarding to me than interactive things, stuff where you learn, and/or spending time with other people.

Normally (I’ve got two dayjobs right now) I’d be running at 5-15 hours a week, not including any games I was forced to play for my job (market research and/or internal playtesting).

At peak, I’ve probably played 50+ hours in a single week. But then, I’m under the age of 35, which means I’ve had the luxury of playing while at school and university. I used to play some games, like the original Civilization (from 1990-something), and the original Shogun: Total War (about ten years later), all night, and see the dawn in. Ditto we used to play Micro Machines v2 all night, 4 player mulitplayer, on many occasions.

(its a crying shame that Codemasters let that IP rot and die. Its awesomeness is still strong…)

What advice would you give someone who is wanted to get into game development?

  1. Only apply for the job you actually want to do. DONT YOU FRICKIN DARE apply for a QA job because you really want to be a programmer or designer but dont think you’re good enough. If you’re not good enough DONT join the industry. (if you dont understand why this is a big issue, I’ve covered it on my blog a couple of times ;))
  2. Make more games. If a game is NOT shipped it’s worth exactly zero.  Even the world’s biggest turd – IF you ship it – is worth something more than zero.
  3. Read my blog, find the links on the right hand side, and click on the bits about “recruitment” and game-design/programming – I cover different aspects of this often.
  4. If you can find one, get a bachelor’s degree in a “traditional” subject (one that existed before 1990) relevant to your discipline.  i.e. Programmers: get a Computer Science degree (everything else is worthless), Artists: get a Fine Arts degree (everything else is NOT worthless, but is worth less), Designers: get a Literature or History or Psychology or Philosophy degree (Lit and Hist probably best), Producers: … get a degree in something scientific, like Physics or Biology or Chemistry or Maths … something that proves you’ve got an extremely precise, well-organized, empirical mind.

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

One or two, but nothing that’s going to help anyone else :), at least not without the long rambling explanation of “why” that would go with them…

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One shot: Ivy

Posted by Randolph Carter on September 28, 2009

MMO community connection:

The Road Goes Ever On

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

The Road Goes Ever On is a visual blog that follows the story of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien using screenshots from the MMO “Lord of the Rings Online”. I discuss similarities and differences between the way locations are described in the text and the way they are implemented in the game world.

How did you come up with the idea for this?

When I started playing LOTRO, I was really impressed with the faithfulness of the game’s interpretation of the text, so I thought it would be interesting to have a blog that showed the evidence of that. I thought it would appeal to LOTRO players familiar with the book, but also to LOTRO players unfamiliar with the book and maybe even Tolkien fans unfamiliar with the game. I’m sure there are also plenty of LOTRO players who came to the game because they are fans of the Peter Jackson movies specifically. In any case, if TRGEO inspires a few people to read The Lord of the Rings, I’d consider that a great thing.

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

LOTRO was my introduction to MMOs and I actually haven’t tried any others yet. I’ve really enjoyed the experience so far, particularly when I finally figured out how the dynamics of group play work.

Can you recall that first “wow!” moment in game?

As mentioned, discovering the concepts of group play — that each class has a unique role to play in group content — really heightened my enjoyment of the game. Obviously that’s something that’s integral to the MMO experience that might not necessarily be apparent to new players used to single-player games. At least it wasn’t immediately obvious to me!

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

At my peak, probably 2-3 hours each day on weekdays and longer on weekends were I had some free time. These days, I play less often partly due to time pressure, partly due to being at level cap, and partly due to burnout.

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

In the past I have been a fan of RPG-style single player PC games. I would love to be involved in some tabletop gaming (long-time D&D fan) but it’s a huge time commitment.

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

I started TRGEO in early 2009 and have been working it since.

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

For me, this is just an enjoyable hobby.

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

In the early months of the blog I attempted to make a new post each week, but I soon realized that at that pace I would quickly run out of content. I’ve slowed down the pace of my posting because of that.

Would you say there is some grind involved in blogging? If so, what is it and how do you tend to cope with it?

There is some grind involved. To write something engaging, I think the author has to be feeling inspired about the subject matter. I think with MMOs “burnout” is a well-known phenomenon and can strike from time to time. When I’m feeling burnt out, I take some time away from the game. I eventually feel inspired to come back after a break. Other times working on alts is enough to do the trick.

By contrast, what do you find pleasurable about blogging?

I think what I find most enjoyable is creating a finished product. Because of the style of my blog, which is more an essay format that something more conversational, I feel a sense of accomplishment with each new post.

Would you care to share a particularly memorable moment from your blogging past?

It was exciting when Turbine (developer of LOTRO) featured TRGEO on their website and on their Facebook page and Twitter feed.

Have you ever considered branching into podcasting?

No, I don’t think it would fit with the subject matter of TRGEO.

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

Yes, I think the response has been positive and I have had a number of really kind comments and encouraging messages left on the blog.

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

I’m really happy with the direction of TRGEO. If I had all the time in the world, I would probably attempt to do more in-depth research and analysis in each of the posts.

You’ve mentioned that at some point in the not too distant future you will run out of content for your blog. Do you have plans to expand your blog beyond its current scope?

No. A couple of months ago, I did add a secondary feature to the content of the blog, which is a discussion of characters from the book that also appear in-game. This was done to “space out” the primary content — following the main plot of the text. For now, my plan is to just let the pace be what it needs to be so that the game content stays ahead of the blog content.

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One shot: Almazar and Weaux

Posted by Randolph Carter on September 23, 2009

MMO community connection:

Lord of the Rings Online Reporter

Please take a minute and describe what your blog and podcast are about.

Chris (Almazar): LOTRO Reporter is a news, tips and tricks blog about Lord of the Rings Online. We cover the latest news, some tips for the game, as well as include some editorial content about the game, such as our Group Leveling column, which talks about the experience of leveling through the content as a group.

Bill (Weaux): The blog and the podcast are about LOTRO news and game information, from the perspective of relatively low level, casual players. Kind of a “write-what-you-know-and-make-up-the-rest” thing.

Stepping back a bit, you guys happen to be friends in real life. How did you meet?

Chris: Bill moved to the town that I lived in when we where both in Grade 10, and we had a few classes together. We became friends quickly and ended up playing a lot of pen and paper RPGs together, mostly the Palladium system of games. We played a LOT of Rifts. We also played Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, and a couple of other games. We became quite close when we both ended up going to the same University. Marriages, kids and the such later, and here we are.

Bill: Chris and I went to high school together. I was the new kid in school in grade 10, and Chris invited me to join in him a pen-and-paper game session (we played D&D 2nd ed. and several Palladium books games). We drifted apart a bit when we met our girlfriends/future wives, but the summer after graduation I scammed a last-minute invite to his wedding. Our lives have taken very similar paths since then through school & location and we’ve stayed close ever since.

And so, where did the idea of starting a LOTRO blog and podcast come from?

Chris: I started the blog this past summer when I really got back into LOTRO. Bill and I had played WoW quite a bit, and had talked for a long time about starting a WoW podcast and blog. When we both got bored of WoW, and wanted to play together again, we re-subscribed to LOTRO (we had not been playing LOTRO for about 6 months) and started playing together again.

Through all of this, I came to really appreciate the complexities of the game, started listening to some podcast and checking out some blogs, and I found that there wasn’t anything out there that was filling the same space in the LOTRO world as two of my favorite blogs/podcasts: WoW.com (then known as WoW Insider) and The Instance. Not that I think we’re in the same league as those two, but it’s something that I keep in mind as we produce content.

I’m basically making a blog and podcast that I would enjoy!

Bill: I would like to take all the credit, but it would be a dirty lie. We often get into very heated, involved discussions about LOTRO (& MMO’s in general) and at one point we decided it would make a good podcast. Chris did about 95% of all the work getting it set up and published (both the podcast and the blog) – I’m there mainly for the good looks.

What were both of your introductions to MMOs and what was that experience like?

Chris: I started with Ultima Online. Well, do MUDs on bulletin boards count? Did those two. I actually didn’t have a computer when I bought UO, but I happened to live right above a bookstore/internet cafe where they had computers that you could rent by the hour. I had played the Ultima games a ton, and really wanted to get in on an online version of it. I didn’t get very far in UO though. I got ganked. So I tried a different area. And I got ganked. Yeah…..

Bill: My first experience was in Asheron’s Call. I was in University, and it obliterated my grades! At the time I thought it was the most rich, deep, involved gaming experience possible. It’s funny to look back on it now as seeming fairly simple.

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

Chris: My first WOW moment in an MMO was the first night that I played Dungeons and Dragons Online with my wife, with Bill, and with his wife. I had never really gotten into groups very much in the past, missing out on all the group content that MMOs have to offer. Playing with a group, all the time, made the game so much more enjoyable that it had been before and changed the way that I approached MMOs from that point on.

Bill: It’s over 10 years ago now, but I remember the pain and joy of learning new spells in Asheron’s Call (through random material research) the hard way, because I hadn’t looked up any of the cheats yet. I remember thinking, “No regular game could get away with such a mind-numbing, frustrating mechanic.” Again, it’s funny to look at it now because if a game had such a mechanic to one of its central game systems (spellbooks) I would be out of there like a shot. It just speaks to how “enthusiastic” I was about the game.

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

Chris: I think that my peak was probably about 50-60 hours on WoW when I was on sick leave from work. I was staying in a trailer, in my sister’s driveway, away from my family, and couldn’t really get up and move around. So I played a lot of WoW. Enjoyed it, as it was a way to connect with people, and to connect with my wife as well (she played WoW and currently plays LOTRO).

Now, I play about 10-15 hours per week, depending on how much real life gets in the way. Family, kids, that always comes first.

Bill: At my worst (best?) I was probably playing 40-50 hours a week for several games. I’m sure I did that when I was at my peaks in Asheron’s Call, Dark Age of Camelot, and World of Warcraft. I also squeezed a few hours a week in that time for offline games like Baldur’s Gate, Diablo II etc.

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

Chris: I’m a pretty avid gamer overall. I play Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead on the PC, as well as several games on my PS3, mostly of the Rock Band variety, although Batman: Arkam Asylum has got its hooks on me pretty good right now. We used to play tabletop/pen and paper RPGs, but life just isn’t letting Bill and I get together often enough for that.

Bill: Definitely. Our pen-and-paper play has definitely died off (we tried email campaigns, and IM campaigns, but it just didn’t work). I have a Wii that I play with my wife and kids. I definitely still play quite a bit of “offline” PC Games, though not near as much as I used to.

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

Chris: With our resent spike in number at the site recently, my wife was joking that it will soon become a second job! But in reality, this is a very enjoyable hobby. I have a family to take care of, and working helps me do that, so the time I can offer to the site and the podcast will always be limited. Then again, Scott Johnson from The Instance only recently left his job to pursue his art, podcasting and blogging career fulltime, and he’s been Podcasting for years. It’s a great standard to emulate.

Bill: At this point in my life it’s a hobby – there’s too much RL for it to be anything else. It would be a dream come true to be able to make it a living. It sounds sad, but if I could be a minimum wage blogger/podcaster/internet-pseudo-celebrity I would retire from my day job. Heaven is going to work in your underwear.

Do you try and stick to any sort of schedule?

Chris: I try to put a new post on the site every day, but it usually comes in spurts, where I will put 3 or 4 posts up one day, then nothing the next. With the podcast, we try to keep a weekly schedule, but are doing a pretty poor job so far. It’s a learning curve. Our latest episode was a week and a half late because I forgot to hit the RECORD button before we started, and we lost a whole show. Real life didn’t allow use to record again for another week. I also try to use twitter whenever I post, and also respond to other LOTRO related tweets whenever I can.

Bill:  We try to podcast weekly, though various RL and technical issues have interrupted that schedule. I think as we’ve realized there’s more people listening besides our wives, we’re putting more priority into getting podcasts out in a timely fashion. Chris is a prodigious blogger and is far more diligent than I at it. Same with podcasting though – as we’re starting to see more people visiting the blog, I am putting higher priority on contributing.

Would you say there is some grind involved in blogging and/or podcasting? If so, what is it and how do you tend to cope with it?

Chris: No, I don’t find it a grind at all. Mind you, I haven’t been doing this all that long. It may change. I don’t think it will though. I enjoy what I’m doing, I’m creating content that I like, and a community is starting to form around it. It was a little hard at the beginning, as it felt like we where in a vacuum, without much community feedback. It’s very nice to see the community interacting now, and that makes it all worthwhile.

Bill: So far, no. Every podcast we’ve done is basically a phone-call or BS session we would have had anyway. The only difference is we’re recording it (and drinking less during). Chris being the far more diligent blog poster might have a different point-of-view but anything I’ve written or contributed has just been for fun.

By contrast, what do you find pleasurable about the experience?

Chris: I just enjoy writing the posts and talking about LOTRO for the podcast. I’m really enjoying the community interaction that has started recently, as well as starting to interact with some of the other bloggers and podcasters in the LOTRO community.

Bill: The act of doing it is fun for me. I think if I had all the time in the world and real life would leave me alone (and all the game servers were down) I would write for the blog and record podcasts for fun.

Are you pleased with how your blog and podcast have been received in the blogosphere?

Chris: Like I mentioned before, the beginning was tough, but lately, things have been great. We’re even looking at forming at Kinship for bloggers, podcasters and their fans, and the reaction to that has been very positive.

Bill:  Well, it’s been relatively recent that we’ve started to see some significant traffic, but definitely yes. I find it fascinating and very flattering that there’s people out there interested in what we have to say.

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

Chris: Nothing comes to mind specifically.

Bill: I would have made a bigger effort at the start of the website I think. Again – Chris deserves all the credit for this thing taking off to where it is now. I have some ideas for the future for it, though – so stay tuned!

Are there any new projects in the works for the LOTRO Reporter you’d care to discuss?

Chris: We’re just going to keep growing and expanding the site naturally. I’m spoken to a few fans about trying to get some pre-recorded segments on to the show that are fan created, and we’re working on that now. Other than that, we’re just going to keep playing LOTRO and having fun with the site and podcast.

Bill: I think we’re mainly just trying to keep writing and keep recording as long as it’s fun. Of course our 5 year plan is to have a prime-time LOTRO sitcom on a major network and to own the entire internet. That’s in pretty early planning stages though.

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One shot: Bootae

Posted by Randolph Carter on September 15, 2009

MMO community connection:

Bootae’s Bloody Blog

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

Mainly it’s all about Warhammer Online, though I do go on the odd tangent. I guess in theory it’s not a WAR blog, it’s a blog for whatever games I’m playing right now, it’s just that my main gaming passion at present is WAR, so that has the limelight. In the future you may see the odd post about the likes of Mechwarrior 5, Silenthunter 5 and perhaps the other MMOs, but for now it’s all about the WAAAGH!

I post about my experiences in (and around) the game and try to be as fair as possible, if it sucks I’ll say so, but also give credit where it’s due. For me it’s important to avoid jumping on the “I got beaten by class X nerf them!” bandwagon and as such I try to stay as objective as possible. I’m not a fan of the forum based over-reacting troll culture.

Amongst things, I regularly ramble on with thoughts about how WAR could be improved (third faction posts are common…) and I try to give people a heads up on decent Developer comments and other info coming out of Mythic.

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

Ultima Online in I think 1997… I bought it on a whim; at the time I had no idea what I was getting myself in to. I’d been doing a lot of online gaming, but it was things like X-wing and Quake. Ultima was a revelation. This was back in the days when it was full PvP everywhere, the game wasn’t all about epics, there were no quests, there wasn’t much in the way of add ons and the in-game player community was hugely important. It dumped you in a massive, very wild world and let you find your own adventure. I was lucky enough to join an amazing guild (Eternal Knights of the Circle) and thanks to them and the rest of the Europa server I had classic adventures every night. I loved it and have never encountered it’s like again. Alas, whilst UO is still running, epics and the foul influence of carebear games have killed it.

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

When I joined EKC in Ultima Online and was taken to their player built city. It was incredible! The guild had control over a huge amount of land to the east of a place known as Wrong Mountain. They had their own pub, blacksmith, a huge tower where their King and Queen lived and loads of houses. There were even knights from the guild patrolling the city, defending the locals from PKs (Player Killers). Bare in mind the whole persistent world was new then, so this was just mind blowing.

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

At my peak in the UO days it was probably over 30 hours a week. These days I have to balance gaming with a wife, daughter and watching as much football as humanly possible, so somewhere between 10 and 15 hours a week at a guess. I have a couple of “gaming nights” agreed with the missus, but I sneak an hour or so in most nights.

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

Like half of the known world I’ve got a Nintendo Wii sitting there not doing much. Having seen the heavenly PC light it’s rare that a console game can hold my attention. PC gaming wise I like strategy games, simulators and things with a bit more realism. I play Arma 2 quite a lot, awesome co-op on that. Oh and anything Warhammer. Which right now is the new Bloodbowl game. Great stuff, I’m in an online league for that.

I’m an old Warhammer geek, I love the background of both the 40,000 and fantasy universes. Whilst I actually still have a room at home full of little soldiers, I don’t really play the games anymore, other than Battlefleet Gothic. I’d say that’s probably the best game that Gamesworkshop have ever made, easy to play but hard to master.

This of course means my wife thinks I’m a mentalist.

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

It was January this year; I saw the Age of Blogging promotion and figured I’d give it a try. To be honest I didn’t really think too much about it, just thought I’d do it for a crack and fully expected to get bored and quit after a week or two. Then I realised people were actually reading and so I started putting a bit more thought into it.

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

Oh it’s a hobby totally. I was asked recently to write for something else, which was a pleasant shock, but I turned it down. I’ve already got a decent job and I’m not sure the time and effort of a second writing job would be worth the reward. When you’re writing for yourself it’s no hassle, you can have a break whenever you feel like it. I’m not sure I fancy having to work with someone else’s deadlines. Of course, never say never.

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

A lot of the ideas for posts come from discussion with friends about WAR. I then either start writing a post or note down the idea for later. This way I’ve built up a list of potential topics and it’s really helped with those writers’ block moments. Most of the actual writing I do on lunch breaks at work, then just tidy things up a little from home and post away.

Would you say there is some grind involved in blogging? If so, what is it and how do you tend to cope with it?

The day it becomes a grind is the day I quit.

By contrast, what do you find pleasurable about blogging?

I get to vent frustrations and record my oh so brilliant ideas and then people actually read them! I mean come on… that’s gotta be good for your ego. That and there’s always the vain hope that someone from Mythic/whoever will one day read one of your posts and actually respond.

Would you care to share a particularly memorable moment from your blogging past?

I have a real life friend and guild member that is always using his photoshop skills to make amusing images. I got to post up his version of female Orc in a provocative pose. Puking and laughing at the same time is a fascinating experience.

Have you ever considered branching into podcasting?

The way I write tends to reflect how folks round my way talk, which can involve a bit of crudeness. Obviously this interview isn’t for my site, hence me not saying bollocks at all… Doh… I’m not sure that combined with my London drawl is right for podcasting, they always seem a bit prim and proper.

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

Pleased? I’m bloody amazed! I’m too lazy to really advertise my blog, it’s just there, so I was expecting to get a handful of hits a day and then have to wind it up due to lack of interest from anyone else. Instead I’ve somehow ended up with regular readers, people commenting and others linking to me. It’s hugely flattering and was a total surprise. Lately I’ve started getting people messaging me in game just wanting to say hi, which has been very trippy.

I really have to say thank you to my readers and particularly to everyone that has been promoting my blog.

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

I would have started blogging years ago.

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

If you’re writing something and it’s not feeling right, then review it and don’t be afraid to delete and write something different.

Likewise don’t worry about your posts being the next Name of the Rose. It’s a blog not an exhibition in literary excellence.

As I mentioned before, if you have multiple ideas note them down. Before you know it you’ll have a little warehouse of potential posts.

Can you picture a future where you will hang up your keyboard and no longer blog?

No. I’ve got the bug…

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.

Oooh I like this one :D Ok you asked for it :P

I’m going to make Warhammer Online 2, but it would be a very different kettle of fish to the existing game. The core concept is a melding of Dark Age of Camelot and Ultima Online set in the Warhammer Fantasy universe. At launch there would be the following playable races: Bretonnians, Empire, Dwarfs, Orcs & Goblins, Chaos Mortals, Skaven, High Elves and Dark Elves. They would be independent and not grouped into factions. Language would work as in the lore, with most races able to communicate through a common tongue, as well as set chat to talk in their own languages. As a player you would be restricted to one race per server. Guilds from different races could form alliances, as long as they were within certain restrictions, i.e. no Chaos and High Elf alliances.

There are not flight masters everywhere and no zone loading screens; it’s one giant world. There will be some fast transport, but limited. To reach some remote areas you will need to go on proper expedition. No flying to just outside the enemy zone, you need to travel and prepare. And when I said a giant world, I meant it. Really, bloody huge! This is the Warhammer world in all its glory. Exploration will be back on the menu. I want a game where a year down the line there’s still new things to see.

Everywhere is PvP enabled, you are attackable by other races at all times. Your own race is un-attackable, this is going to be a bloody harsh world and your own race will need to work together. Each race would have their multiple major cities from Warhammer lore as relatively safe zones, with NPC guards protecting them. These would attack their races natural enemies on sight, but not instantly launch at those with more cordial relations (say Dwarfs and Humans). Cities can be attacked, torched and temporarily destroyed (it would slowly rebuild itself).

Away from the cities would be smaller NPC and player populated towns, guilds would be able to buy or capture property in existing towns, or even build their own in a selection of designated areas. All of which would be attackable, meaning enemies can attack and conquer these towns. NPC guards and defences could be purchased, so when you’re offline your property can’t be ninjaed unless by large-scale assaults. Thankfully because of the size of the world, attacks on enemy towns will not happen every day, but should you capture one then you have a potential stronghold in enemy territory.

Character levels are gone. Being hit by a sword hurts, it doesn’t matter what level you are it could still kill you. I want a skill based system, but one where you have to actually hit things to gain skill points. Want to get good with a sword? Go stick it in some Orcs! Skill points can be spent on unlocking abilities. But crucially it means you’re not useless when you get started, this time you can join in with your mates straight away. It just means your character lacks the finesse of one that has unlocked lots of abilities. I’m sticking with the lock target & toolbar system we’re all used to, just changing how we get those abilities.

Not wanting to neglect PvE, there are hundreds of dungeons of varying scale and none of them are instanced. Instancing has made us soft.

Or if I can’t have that lot, then I’ll just settle for an exact copy of Ultima Online before the 2nd age, but with proper modern graphics. At the end of the day that’s all I want from a new MMO, just someone to make one as good as UO used to be.

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One shot: Kelly

Posted by Randolph Carter on September 11, 2009

MMO community connection:

Geekoric: Geek Girl See, Geek Girl Do

(un)Enlightened English

Would you mind explaining what your site (un)Enlightened English is about and why you came to create it?

I actually work as a tutor at a college in NYC and have been for about three years now. As such, I work with an extremely diverse group of students–most of which are English as Second Language students. I love my job and I love the excitement that someone has when they finally understand something, so I made a random post to a social networking group that my colleagues and I use. While discussing what I had written with my husband, I said “This would be an awesome blog post.” Next thing I knew, we were coming up with blog names (Enlightened English was too pretentious, which is why the parenthetical prefix was inserted!) and he bought the domain name.

So, you’re questing down in the bowels of a dungeon deep inside a goblin keep and come upon the bodies of several freshly hung humans, several of which are still writhing and apparently alive. What would Ariwyn do? What would Kelly the grammar enthusiast do?

Well Kelly would be writhing that you chose hung instead of hanged! But Ariwyn—my gaming self—is always a Lawful Good person, so she would definitely save them all, heal them and then go find the evil-doer who put them there in the first place!

As someone who takes a particular interest in the English language do you find yourself ever analyzing and proof reading quest text?

Oh God, yes. I’ve noticed grammatical errors in quest text before. One time, while playing Warhammer Online, I noticed that the text in the box didn’t match with the text in the NPC’s talk bubble–the box used an exclamation point while the talk bubble used a question mark! For shame! I even took the time to report it. However, being an English junkie is more than just looking at grammar all the time. I’ve enjoyed several of the novels that go along with given MMOs and sometimes they have managed to change my perception of a game. There’s some pretty awesome gaming-based literature out there.

As a gamer and someone who is also pursuing a career in education, do you see potential for video games to be used in an educational environment?

Oh definitely. Some schools are already using games like Civilization as an educational tool for history, but I think we can also use gaming to improve language usage everywhere. If we can create a game where players type and communicate to NPCs, students will still be in an environment they enjoy while having the benefit of practicing appropriate language usage. The more you write in a particular way, the more apt you are to integrate that into your life. While in MMOs we socialize with one another by using terms like “ftw,” “g2g” and the like, interaction with an NPC could help reduce those terms from a student’s academic vocabulary. The options become more and more limitless with each gaming advancement.

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

Well, I played Tibia once or twice, but wasn’t too amazed by it or anything. My first “real” in-depth experience was when Guild Wars was released. My husband (then boyfriend) had me play it and I loved it. I had always enjoyed console games before then, but somewhere throughout my life my inner gamer-geek was hidden through my interests in dance, cheerleading, and all those other girly things. I played an Elementalist/Monk and it was pretty much over from there–I was hooked on gaming. There were other added benefits of MMOs that other games couldn’t provide as well. My husband has to travel for business sometimes and with an MMO, we can do something together while we’re apart. It seemed like a logical thing to start doing!

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

Hmm. It’s hard to say. I definitely remember my first “Wow…” moment of disbelief though! I was playing FFXI and died and saw “Level Down” flash across my screen. I turned to my husband and said “What is that a debuff or something?” Ha! Little did I know that you can ACTUALLY level down in FFXI! Not quite a “wow!” but definitely a “wow…” moment!

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

WAY too much time! I would get home from class and play with my husband for about 5-6 hours a night on weeknights and on weekends–forget it. 12 hours or more? My husband and I co-GMed a couple of guilds, so we needed to be available to our guildmates and officers. Now I only play an hour or two a night. Graduate school can cut back on your gaming when you’re trying to graduate with a 4.0!

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

I play non-MMO games, primarily RTS games and my SNES emulator. I think the SNES had some really great games, and I love the nostalgia I experience while playing it. I tend to not play RTS games very well though and prefer being able to build up a city than immediately going to war.

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

I actually haven’t been blogging for too long. I started towards the end of March and then “released” my site with a public announcement on April 1st. Blogging isn’t the only thing I’ve done though. I used to be the Content Lead for Warhammer Alliance, where I established how content is organized, presented and structured on the site. I am a bit of a “noob” on the scene though, because those are really the only web-based projects that I have set up.

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

“Something more,” without a doubt. Given my blog’s content, I can make it into a business with advertising revenue or even into a book when I have enough posts to compile. Not only is there the business possibilities, but I also get to HELP people. That’s a great feeling. I love seeing that I’m getting 250+ visitors a day from all over the world and knowing that I helped them in some way. I’ll never meet them or know them, but in a way, they’ll know me.

Would you care to share a particularly memorable moment from your blogging past?

I think everyone gets into those little arguments with a random commenter, but one time someone noticed a guest author made a typographical error that slipped my proofreading. I approved the comment and made the change, but my blog was being remodeled and—I don’t know, I must have screwed something up—it needed to be re-done from an older copy. So the person’s comment was deleted (along with my correction of the error). The person got pretty mad, making snarky remarks about integrity and all. So my husband actually emailed her explaining the situation and she responded in such a positive light. She was concerned because many sites do not have that kind of honesty and whatever else and she was about to pass my site off as one of those. It’s very important to me that people feel they can trust me and my work. I always fess up to mistakes, approve comments, and whatever else.

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.

My main study in English is fantastical literature (think fantasy) and the Arthurian Tradition. I would like to make a game somewhat based in the Medieval British Isles in the Arthurian Tradition. The things that would make this different from Dark Age of Camelot is that I would remain rooted in history and literature—making the game of educational use as well. I’m not sure if you’ve ever played The Guild or The Guild 2, but I imagine that some players could focus on “professions” instead of necessarily going out and killing stuff. All the players would be human, and depending on the time the game takes place, warriors could be fighting off the Saxon invasion etc. So definitely a lot of possibilities—those who want to fight, can. Those who want to trade and be merchants, can. Plus that time period is amazingly interesting.

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