Posts Tagged ‘ Three Moves Ahead

Recent Work — 7 September 2015

Don’t be fooled by the fairly short list of things that I’ve been working on of late. The last week was a marathon sprint through a bunch of upcoming stories, but you’ll have to wait a little bit longer to read them. However, my review of Eugen Systems’ Act of Aggression did go up on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, so you can go read that right now.

It’s tough to review a game like Act of Aggression, both because it’s an incredibly difficult game with which to come to grips, but also because I came to it with a ton of expectations and hopes based on the developer’s recent output. This happens a lot, but it’s always a difficult thing to correct for, because I am constantly asking whether I’m reacting based on what I’m seeing and experiencing, or based on the gap between that and what I expected to see.

With Act of Aggression, it took me a long time to start meeting the game on its own terms. That has its own dangers: knowing that my opinion might be shaded by disappointment, I probably err on the side of being forgiving. A lot of my friends, I think, are more frustrated by Act of Aggression than I am. Even so, it’s a game that I am continuing to play and learn long after the review has been filed. It doesn’t make itself easy to enjoy, but it does start paying off if you’re willing to put in the hours to tease apart its overall design and how it wants you to play it.

The same could be said for a lot of RTS games, which is why I’m increasingly worried about the genre as a whole. The problem is that RTS games are uniquely miserable when you’re not good at playing them. I remember, when  he was trying to get a Kickstarter project off the ground, Chris Taylor (who designed Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander) remarked that he felt like RTS developers were constantly misreading the audience. When stats are available, most people play RTS games for the campaign, or they skirmish against the AI. Few spend a lot of time playing ranked games on a ladder. Yet RTS developers, Taylor said, always looked at that trend  and said to the audience, “We hear you! Here’s your hardcore competitive RTS.”

I like RTS games, but this is a hard problem to solve. I think Eugen have come closer to solving it with earlier games than they have with Act of Aggression. That’s why it was so frustrating to see Act of Aggression be so defiantly old-fashioned and cryptic. This is the first Eugen game I’ve played where my friends started bailing on our multiplayer sessions after just one game. I stuck around because it was my job. But for most people, why is this a journey worth taking? RTS developers need to start offering better answers than a hand-wave in the direction of skill and mastery.

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Recent Work – 23 August 2015

Some people have asked me where the hell they can find all the stuff I’m working on and the answer is, or is supposed to be, this blog. But that only works if I update it.

I think one of the things this entire blog unwittingly demonstrates is what happens when you become a working writer and the job becomes less of a pastime and more of a career. Five years ago I saved every link to every article I published. But for the last couple years, I’ve been cranking out so much work that there scarcely seemed time to document it all, and I certainly stopped feeling like every story was a special snowflake the deserved to be memorialized. Especially when I was pulling gaming news shifts, and 1/4 of what I wrote was notes on trailers and patches.

That’s also a warning sign, of course. When you’re forgetting about half of what you’ve done within minutes of doing it, it’s probably time to shift gears. I’ve gotten away from news writing and am focusing more on feature work, which is both more interesting and pays better.

The downside is that a lot more of my life is spent transcribing now. There are services for this, of course, but unfortunately I find it’s in the act of transcribing that I really get a handle on an interview and how it should be used. I wish my brain worked differently, but there you have it. On the other hand, there is a sort of meditative pleasantness in transcription. It’s the writing equivalent of long-haul driving. You just point the car down the road and zone out while miles and miles of blacktop whiz past. With transcription, you just fly through the audio and at the end you’ve got 5,000 words of text to use for a 2,000 word article, and your job just got a lot easier.

Anyway, this is a sampling of what I’ve been up to lately. This isn’t quite everything I’ve done in the last month or so, but it’s close. These are all my major stories, as well as the podcasts I’ve done lately.

The big news is the launch of Esports Today, a podcast I co-host with Andrew Groen that’s aimed at people who like esports but struggle to follow them. When I got into esports coverage, it was a constant struggle to stay on top of  events, and it’s only gotten harder. There are more games to follow these days, but the coverage that’s aimed at esports fans tends to be a little too obsessed with inside-baseball. It’s pitched at people who don’t need to hear news because they already know all the news.

Esports Today gets away from that. We do a tight, half-hour show every week covering most of the major events and stories in professional gaming, with enough to context to get you up to speed and ready for the next event. It’s probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever worked on, thanks in large part to Andrew, the gang at Idle Thumbs, and our producer Michael Hermes.  I’d love it if you checked it out over at Esports.Today

Beyond that, I’m taking a sort-of, kind-of vacation at my friend Julian Murdoch’s. Just a week of living according to my own rhythms and enjoying things like quiet time, reading, and games with friends. It’s hard to get real breaks as a freelancer, but at least this once I’ve managed to get a few days off. Come Monday, I’m still on break, but the late nights and treating beer with chips and salsa like a meal replacement is going to end as I get back to the slightly healthier habits of my regular schedule and life in Cambridge.

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Happy Hour – September 9

OK, I lied. It’s actually the wee small hours of the 10th right now. I’m up late waiting for Windows 7 to install for a second time. The first time it didn’t clear away the hard drive, and I really didn’t feel like rooting out all the old files from the previous installation.

Tomorrow is likely to be grim, but hopefully I’ll be going into it with a vastly superior gaming rig. Some great friends spotted me a new power supply and a GTX 560 video card, and I just bought myself an ASUS 27-inch monitor, along with 8 gigs of RAM, and the 64-bit version of Windows 7. This should get me through to next year, at least. Longer, if consoles keep acting as an anchor on hardware requirements.

This is probably the only weekend where I could fit this in. For the rest of the month, I’m on reviews duty, with no end in sight. This upgrade needed to happen now or never, and it’s a load off my mind knowing I’ll be hitting the major releases with the great hardware. But before I get to reviews, I think I’ll have to install Crysis. Crysis, Sengoku, and Age of Empires Onlines should occupy my weekend quite nicely.

But what about my weeks? I haven’t done a great job of explaining what I’ve been up to lately, but the truth is I’ve kind of been everywhere of late. For instance, you can find me on the last couple Gamers With Jobs Conference Calls, talking about Deus Ex: Human Revolution and other things.

We’ve also been going great guns over on Three Moves Ahead, what with Soren Johnson killing some lazy summer days by spending time talking strategy games with us. It’s been impressive to see the spike in listeners. We do a good show over at 3MA, but a guy like Soren packs the house when he’s headlining. It’s great to count him among 3MA’s fans and recurring panelists.

I also made an appearance over at the mighty Rock, Paper, Shotgun, writing a review of the surprisingly good (yet still somewhat unfulfilling) Tropico 4. It’s thrilling to find myself writing at a place that was such a huge influence on me when I was starting out as a freelancer. To my relief, the RPS readership seems to think I fit in pretty well over there. Some of them didn’t even guess I was a Yank.

I’ll be popping up in some other unusual places over the coming weeks, and I’ve got some projects I’m really excited about. Hopefully tomorrow (today) I’ll be working on one of them with my pal JP Grant. Preferably with some brews in hand.

Happy Hour – July 1

A miraculous deadline extension brought my week to an end a few hours earlier than I anticipated, so now I find myself crashing after a week spent at nearly full-tilt working on a review and three columns. This was instructive: while I generally got my copy in on time, I didn’t allow sufficient time for the revision process to play out, which had a knock-on effect that came to a head today. This tells me that I’ve got the slack in my schedule in the wrong places. I need to look at the copy deadline as the halfway point in an assignment, not the conclusion.

Anyway, I got my extension at the best possible moment: right after I’d finished writing my copy. Since the piece is finished, I can actually use the extra time to polish and find better art to accompany my piece. This is the best outcome. Early extensions have been known to be squandered on such literary pursuits as drinking in bars with friends, going to the movies, or trying to make it through a few more minutes of The Star Wars Christmas Special.

Still, there is no rest for the freelancer. I must log a few more hours with Pride of Nations and work up a review this weekend, and go on a screenshot expedition deep into the heart of Alpha Centauri. I should also figure out what we are doing for this week’s 3MA, something I was too busy to deal with during the week.

Beyond that, I’m going to use the weekend to finish up V for Vendetta, something I got distracted from by a copy of Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. I made the mistake of opening it, just to get a sense for what it might be, and the next thing I knew I was 50 pages in and utterly engrossed in the story. After V, I might move on to The Tombs of Atuan, or I might act on some of the excellent Terry Pratchett advice you guys supplied last week.

Anyway, while I try to lay the foundations for a great week, you should peruse this piece I wrote for GWJ on The Darkness and listen to a great conversation that Troy and I had with Ars Technica’s Ben Kuchera. The discussion with Ben, in particular, is worth your time. I wanted a discussion that got beyond the usual, “Scores are broken, we resent Metacritic” nonsense and discuss our work from a procedural angle. What do we take with us in to a review? Who are we writing for, and what do we try to keep sight of as we work?

One thing deserves some expanding on: rates. I have no idea what my peers are being paid per review, but with most places with whom I do business, bigger games get more space, and more space means a bigger payday. As a working writer, I have every incentive to chase after major releases and every incentive to pass on smaller games, because they are often not worth the time they would take to review.

Now I still do a fair number of small reviews because, hey, strategy is a small niche and I genuinely want to cover games that other people might not be talking about. But I have also had to pass on work from a few outlets who want me to cover a neat looking independent strategy game for ridiculously low pay. By the word, it makes sense, but with certain genres like sports and strategy, the time I spend writing is a scant fraction of the time I spend playing.

This creates an awkward middle ground. A lot of games that require some time-consuming work from a knowledgeable reviewer will not be lucrative enough for the people best qualified to discuss them. It also means that people who read review outlets are not getting the best service reviewers can provide: intelligent criticism of lesser-known games. A few times in the last year I have had to explain what my minimum rates are, and many outlets are unwilling to meet them for a minor title. They want the review, but not enough to pay for a considered, informed opinion. That’s a shame.

Quo Vadimus

A couple springs ago, I logged into Quarter to Three and saw that I had a private message from Troy Goodfellow. I’d run across his name when I was researching another piece I’d written for The Escapist, but I didn’t know much more about him. He liked an article I’d done for them, and wanted to tell me so.

I don’t know many writers who go out of their way to drop messages of appreciation to their juniors, but Troy does. He was willing to chat a bit with me over the next few months, and provide advice and counsel when I needed it. And then at some point he brought me in to help out with a feature series he was running, and shortly thereafter he brought me onto Three Moves Ahead to fill in for Julian and Bruce.

Freelancing often comes down to who you know, and whether or not they like you. Troy reached out to me and opened far more doors than I could have hoped for, starting with his invitation to become a regular 3MA panelist. He vouched for me to editors, and he helped me build an identity and reputation. He is generous with his assistance to those he believes in, and I am very lucky to have won his confidence. There are not many so generous with help in so competitive a field, and games writing is losing more than you might think as Troy transitions to a career in PR.

On his way out the door, he has given me some more amazing opportunities and responsibilities. The one I want to talk about right now is Three Moves Ahead.

Continuity and Change

When 3MA began, it had four incredibly qualified panelists on hand to discuss strategy games. Julian has a very deep well of experience from which he can draw when it comes board games. Troy and Tom Chick know the strategy genre better than any other writers in the US, and more importantly, they can communicate their understanding to readers and listeners. Bruce knows wargames inside and out, and has a logician’s approach to discussion.

Had that group continued to have the type of conversations it did in the first half of 3MA’s life, I would likely never have been a part of it, and the show would be none the worse. They were a great panel and I still consider many of their episodes to be the gold standard against which I judge those I’ve been a part of.

But other commitments made it hard for four or even three of the panelists to record together, and their busy work schedules made it very hard for them to coalesce around a topic on short-notice. Remember that I came aboard as a semi-regular fill-in, and one of the great advantages Troy had in working with me is that I was chronically under-employed and was willing to crash-research a game or a topic. Until joining 3MA, I had never considered myself a strategy gamer. It just happened to be a genre where I spent a third of my gaming time. But I liked 3MA, I was honored to be helping out, and I was learning a lot. I dug into the genre so that I could make more valuable contributions. But I don’t flatter myself in to thinking that I bring what Tom or Bruce does to an episode.

So as I take over the show, one of my goals is to get the mixture of panelists closer to how it was in earlier episodes. It’s a better show when we have a larger group of intelligent people examining the topic at hand. Hopefully Tom and Bruce can help out from time-to-time, but I’m also hoping to add enough depth to the bench that the show is less dependent on me and Julian. In this vein, I’m also hoping to have longer fuses on each 3MA, so that we can better prepare for a topic. If we can get these two things right, I am certain 3MA will be as good as it’s ever been.

All that said, I have different tastes and views than Troy. My definition of what constitutes a strategy game is probably closer to Tom Chick’s heretical “everything is a strategy game.” While I’d never do an episode on Bioshock 2 like he wanted, I might do an episode on the Brothers in Arms series. Not all my favorite games are strategy games, but almost all my favorite games have significant strategic or tactical elements. From time to time, I will beg your forgiveness as I try to catch glimpses of strategy existing outside its natural habitat.

Likewise, it is inevitable that my increasing interest in board games, and Julian’s knowledge of the format, will result in board games playing a larger role on the show. However, I will try and ensure that board games come up in the context of theme shows where  they might be relevant, or when we uncover a particularly interesting game.

Beyond that, you should also expect more classic game analysis. Frankly, we haven’t really scratched the surface of games that are worth revisiting. If we can get the planning right, there’s a wealth of rich topics waiting to receive attention. Episodes like this will also allow Troy to rejoin us on a regular basis.

These are small changes, but I think they could have a major impact on the show. I have other plans in the works: a site for the show, better production equipment and practices, and perhaps even taking the show twice  monthly if it means we can make better preparations and and deliver a better product. But some of these are minor changes, and others are just ideas, not plans. In the last analysis, 3MA answers to two groups: the panel, and the audience. I want those of us who record 3MA to be proud of our effort, and I want those of us who listen to it to come away feeling like it’s as interesting and thought-provoking as ever.

I don’t entirely know what that will entail, which is why I want your input and suggestions. In the meantime I am, as ever, honored by Troy’s trust, and the goodwill of the listeners who have been offering their congratulations and best-wishes since we made the announcement. I will do my best to live up to the standard he set.

Conference Calling

Nothing guarantees a spell of stagnation like a burst of creativity, and that’s about where I’ve been since the last time I wrote anything here. Following a series of deadlines and revisions, plus some heavy groundwork for other pieces, I was pretty much out of thing to say or even think. After I filed my Civilization piece for GamePro, I hopped in the car and lit out for Julian Murdoch’s. Even after I got back from that, I was still unable or unwilling to sit down and write.

But now that I’ve had a few days off, and played a lot of games, I’m ready to start talking again. In fact, I got a head start last weekend with the Gamers With Jobs Conference Call. Since I was going to be at Julian’s anyway, and he was slated to host, he just decided to have me on as a guest.

The Conference Call is a bit like being aboard a Star Destroyer after riding around in the Millenium Falcon that is Three Moves Ahead. I can actually see the other cast members, and everyone seems to have a high-end mike that keeps them from sounding washed out or distant. Julian has a mixing board to fine-tune what gets recorded to his machine. Then the producer, Jonathan Downing, swoops in and makes guys like me sound far more clever and less rambling.

Anyway, you should go give it a listen. The Conference Call was the third podcast I fell in love with, after the mighty and never-to-be-topped GFW Radio and 1UP Yours. It was a treat to appear on it with Sean, Rob, and Allen.

A couple nights ago, we also had GameShark’s Todd Brakke on Three Moves Ahead for some Civilization V talk, and I was surprised at how much fun we had talking about that game. I was worried that, as a topic, Civ V was something of a dead horse (it’s all anyone talked about for a week). But I think we managed to do some great stuff with it. It helps that Troy knows Civ like nobody’s business.