Posts Tagged ‘ Three Moves Ahead

One Move Behind – Expanded Question Time

Right after we recorded the latest Three Moves Ahead, I realized Troy and I had over-discussed each question and under-answered many of them. I would have preferred to answer more questions and maybe do a little less pontificating, but I guess that ship sailed. But there were a couple good questions that I wanted to revisit a bit, and expand on my answers.

Why port Supreme Commander to 360 and not Demigod?

On the show I kind of slammed publishers for not knowing what they’re doing when they force developers to make games for the wrong platforms. My answer was a little glib for my liking, but its was born of my increasing frustration over the number of projects that are stillborn because they can’t meet arbitrary platform requirements. Other projects that are compromised to death for the sake of cross-platform release. I despise the idea of developers being forced to design for a platform that they didn’t intend.

As RTS gamers, though, we benefit from this. Being forced to develop with an eye toward console limitations means not relying on the mouse and keyboard to overcome design excesses.

With Demigod, I’d guess that Gas Powered Games ran into a couple issues. First, it was an odd concept that a lot of larger publishers probably didn’t want to touch. All Stardock cared about was the PC, so there was no incentive to ever explore a 360 version. And since the game ran into so much trouble, and Stardock still doesn’t care about consoles (with the Impulse service, console support is not in their interest), it’s just a good idea who time will likely never come.

Games Journalism 2020

Troy says the video is the future of games journalism. I just don’t see it. Until the line between the computer and the TV is erased, video content is just going to be too slow-paced. Short video reviews and game trailers are one thing, but even with those it’s hard to find the motivation to actually watch. The way I browse, 3 minutes is a lifetime to spend on one thing. 10 is an eternity. This is why podcasts are so great: they are a background activity. Video is foreground.

But I do suspect games journalism will be in a healthier place. The collapse of the print outlets was a disaster and wiped out some tremendous collections of talent. They allowed good people to higher-quality work rather than fixate on volume. The online space has not really caught up with that.

In 2020, I hope there will be more sites like Rock, Paper, Shotgun: writing collectives that take the pressure of individual bloggers and allow for higher editorial standards without sacrificing the personal, homey atmosphere of a blog. A site like Hellmode seems to be off to a great start, and that’s just two writers. I sometimes wonder whether the TMA panel could rule the strategy, wargaming, and boardgame space if the panelists collaborated, and if that could ever be made to pay.

I think we’ll see more outlets like Eurogamer and dear, departed Crispy Gamer. Toward the end, I’ll grant that the Crispy experiment was pretty much over: the site was leaning heavily on a half-dozen staffers, which made it a much less interesting site than it had been when it was a freelancer’s heaven. But the idea is sound: cherry pick the best ideas of a few dozen people, and foster an editorial environment where they are free to experiment and spend time polishing their copy. That’s also why print will still be alive.

An Aside on Getting Paid

There are writers who say you should never work for free. Many of those writers, however, came up in a different market. The bottom line is that I’ve worked for free, and it’s not always a bad thing to do. But it needs to be done with a goal in mind.

Gamers With Jobs does not pay, but there are other benefits to writing there. First, some of my best friends write there and I want to be a part of it. Second, the Gamers With Jobs writer’s room is worth money to me. If I can post my work there to receive feedback, I will emerge from the experience a better writer. A freelancer lives by skills, after all, and there aren’t many places that can help improve them.

There are other outlets that are worth doing a little work for free just so you get the clip in your file. But eventually you need to ask people to start paying, and quit if they don’t. By all means see if you can wedge the door open with free work. But don’t spend too long in the doorway waiting.

Seriously, though, working for free can be a disaster. Exchange of services for compensation is the foundation of professionalism. If that exchange is not taking place, it’s very hard to have a professional interaction. An editor needs to be able to make expectations and preferences clear, and that’s much easier when you’re paying someone money. That’s what nobody tells you about freebies: it actually makes the work more difficult, because the relationship is undefined.

I have major ethical concerns, however, about sites that rely on a community to generate most of their content, and compensate their writers with a bit of notoriety and hints that one day, the Editors will pluck a community member from that ranks and make him Staff. I don’t think that’s an effective avenue into the industry, and if writers are generating traffic for a website, they should be given more than a pat on the head for being a “featured writer.”

I hope that in 2020, those sites are gone, and community goes back to being something to nurture and enjoy, not strip-mine.

Starcraft II Round-Up

Longtime TMA listeners and readers know that I’ve been deeply skeptical of Starcraft II for quite awhile, and now that I’ve played it, I think my skepticism was well founded. However, I didn’t expect to like the direction Blizzard have gone nearly as much as I do.

But I don’t think it’s the towering achievement that it is so often portrayed to be. In fact, I think this is one of the toughest games to assess.

Last night, Tom Chick rejoined us on TMA, and ex-Gamasutra writer and future Irrational employee Chris Remo stopped by to share his thoughts. We had a fantastic discussion, and wrestled with the many problems Starcraft II poses for those trying to judge it. Go give it a listen.

However, I also penned some thoughts of my own for Gamers With Jobs, a site at which I will now be writing regularly. This is exciting. GWJ is probably my favorite gaming community, and I’m friends with just about everyone who writes there. In fact, my not writing there was starting to seem a bit odd. So they took me in, and I promptly picked a fight about Starcraft II.

Go read my first piece for the site, and enjoy the brisk discussion that follows.

PAX Break

I’ve been in a bit of a writing funk lately that’s been really frustrating me, and now that it’s finally ending and I have a million thing I want (and, for my editors, need) to get down on paper, it’s time to take a break for PAX East. That’s about the only downside, however, to a convention for which I am very excited. Yesterday I made the trek across the Harvard bridge, over the “Smoot” marking and past a major fender-bender – actually, let’s make that a crumple-zone crumpler – and arrived in Back Bay to meet Troy Goodfellow and some other writers for dinner. On the corner of Mass Ave. and Boylston, a large man wearing a too-small Ghostbusters T-shirt slammed into me while playing on a handheld system, and I knew I’d found PAX.

Then I promptly got lost, having not noticed that there is a jog between Hereford and Dalton, so I kept looking for a through street which doesn’t exist on the north side of Boylston. But I eventually found my way thanks to a laconically polite BPD patrolman.

Anyway, I highly recommend PAX-goers check out these helpful guides from the Phoenix’s Mitch Krpata: food, sights, and getting around. One bit of advice is so important, I must repeat it here:

Please don’t take your picture outside of Cheers, attempt to speak with a Boston accent, or wear any New York Yankees paraphernalia.

There. Mitch just saved your life.

I should also mention that the Eastern contingent of Three Moves Ahead will be having a little breakfast get together on Sunday morning. I will be there, as will Troy Goodfellow and Julian Murdoch. One or all of us may be savagely hungover, but there’s nothing for a hangover like bracing conversation! Here is what Troy had to say about it.

After checking reviews, schedules and locations, I’ve settled on the Trident Booksellers & Cafe around the corner from the Hynes Convention Center.

For now, I am planning on Sunday at 10 AM for the meeting, but I may bump it as early as 9:30 depending on a number of things. Don’t be afraid to come late, and please let me know if you plan on coming so we can try to get a reservation or something a couple of days ahead. I may have to leave by 11 to help with something else, but no one has ever needed me around to have fun.

I strongly urge you to come to this meeting if you like strategy games, Three Moves Ahead, or just some of the guys who are on Three Moves Ahead.

But where else might you find me during PAX East? Here are some panels that I am likely to attend:

  • Penny Arcade Panel #1 – Main Theatre – Friday, 4:00pm
  • The Future of PC Gaming – Wyvern Theatre – Friday, 10:00pm (this is a long shot for me)
  • Kotaku and Croal: In Search Of The Best Games Ever – Manticore Theatre -Saturday, 11:30am
  • The Death of Print – Manticore Theatre – Saturday, 1:00pm
  • Naughty Dog LIVE – Naga Theatre – Saturday, 4:00pm
  • Podcasting (f)or PR – Naga Theatre – Saturday, 5:30pm
  • Everything … About Game Journalism – Manticore Theatre – Sunday, 2:30pm
  • Sequelitis Snake Oil – Manticore Theatre – Sunday, 4:00pm

What do I look like? Well, take a look at this gentleman here and picture him with a beard, a black topcoat (if the weather stays cold) and surrounded by less vibrant foliage. He will probably be standing toward the side or back of a room, looking like he’s asking himself “What would Darcy do?” (probably not attend PAX). That is me, and you should absolutely say hello. We are, after all, members of the same tribe.

One Move Behind – Standing Athwart History Yelling "Stop!"

I am not an optimist. I am skeptical of most changes and need to see evidence that my fears are unfounded before I can abandon them. So when it comes to developments like Facebook gaming or microtransactions, my instincts say that there is great potential for these to be negative developments. This is the source of my misgivings during this week’s Three Moves Ahead.

Quality of Life

When it comes to Facebook gaming, I must concede that my objections have very little to do with the likelihood that we will see good games on that platform. It has everything to do with the kind of gamer I am, and the way I prefer to live my life. Selfishly, I am afraid that gaming will increasingly move into an arena for which I have little patience: the social network.

Right now I have four tabs open in my browser: Gmail, Google Reader, Twitter, and the WordPress editor. Whenever I momentarily come to the end of a line of thought, I flick to one of the other tabs. It’s a reflex at this point, one I don’t completely feel capable of controlling. I struggle with the fears that Nicholas Carr described in his Atlantic piece: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

…Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets’reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)

These are serious areas of concern for me. I am often struck by the sudden fear that I’m not developing as a writer, because I’m nowhere near the reader I used to be. I use the same couple sentence structures and the same “go to” turns of phrase because I’m no longer capable of noticing things like sentence structure, or hearing the way a particular choice of words can change the texture of a thought. My eyes dance to and fro, the nouns, verbs, and modifiers strobing like runway landing lights in the expanse of the page. The general meaning of a paragraph quickly becomes clear. Its particulars are vanish as my attention moves on.

Engagement has become more a fight than it used to be. I sometimes feel like I’m living in “Harrison Bergeron”, unable to form a complex thought because something always happens to break my concentration. Right now, for instance, the Twitter tab shows a (5). Five tweets have appeared on my feed since I last checked it. I badly want to go see what they are, even though I’m not really interested. I’d rather stay here and keep writing.

To an extent, Facebook is my line in the sand. I fear its endlessness, and the social economy that drives users to toss notes and gifts at their friends, exchanging daily updates with people that they are not particularly close to. With my prestigious collection of insecurities, and my predilection to get addicted to just about anything, I can almost guarantee that my relationship with Facebook would grow unhealthy. Add Facebook gaming to that mix, and I’ll end up with another perpetually open tab on my browser. Another drain on my already atomized attention, potentially worse than the others.

When I play a game, I don’t want to be “sort of” playing a game and sort of chatting with my acquaintances. I want to be playing the game. When I get back to my apartment tonight, if I still have enough energy left, I’m going to clear my desk, hook up the racing wheel, and do a Formula 3000 qualifying session at the Brno circuit. The only thing in the world that I’m going to care about for a half-hour is my car and the racing line. Everything else will be gone.

And when I’m done with that, I might turn off my computer and sit down with the novel I’m reading, or perhaps continue with the organizational history of Napoleon’s Grand Armee. If I keep playing, I might lose myself in Clear Sky some more, or I’ll try to salvage my Prussian campaign in Napoleon: Total War. Perhaps MK will want to continue our game of Sins of a Solar Empire. But whatever I do next, I will be all in.

The Myth of Progress

It may be that the days of this type of gamer are already numbered, and have been for quite awhile. But inevitability isn’t synonymous with desirability. Rabbit may be correct when he says that people have already voted for Facebook gaming and microtransactions with their dollars and quarters, but that doesn’t mean they actually want a future where that is gaming’s dominant form. But by their very nature, these little casual games and microtransactional models can give rise to the tyranny of small decisions. We’re about to change the course of an entire industry and a young art form based on nickel-and-dime whims, and I think there’s a huge danger there that should worry people who love videogames.

Nor am I convinced that having millions of new gamers taking up the hobby is a good thing. It depends. If I thought the rise of free-to-play models and Facebook gaming were going to bring a flood of new players into gaming as it exists right now, I’d be more excited. But I think this might be a Chinatown situation: we can’t bring new players to gaming, so we bring gaming to new players. We redefine what “gaming” means, and then call the new people who like this easier, more accessible activity gamers, and we say what a great thing it is for the hobby. But nothing has really changed. We share little in common with the newcomers, and their games have little in common with ours. What has changed is that our market share just got smaller. That rarely means anything good. Just ask Ensemble.

Now Rabbit mentioned that a lot of the counterarguments resemble the anti-console arguments that PC gamers used to make. That the rise of Xbox would spell trouble, and would hurt gaming. And obviously, the industry has survived and flourished even as the PC has receded as the dominant platform and consoles have moved onto more and more of what used to PC turf.

Or has it? I don’t find myself wanting for good games to play, but I also can’t deny how much I identify with this comment that Ken Levine made on Twitter: “Innovation wise, the aughts didn’t really hold a candle to the 90s.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the decade of the PlayStation and the Xbox was also a decade of slowed innovation. We were right to worry ten years ago, and many of our fears came to pass. That we’ve learned to live with the new reality doesn’t mean it was all for the best.

As we consider what might turn out to be the most significant change in the game industry since the Famicom, we should ponder the ramifications, and what we stand to lose.

One Move Behind – Year One

Troy Goodfellow celebrated the anniversary of Three Moves Ahead with Episode 53 last night, and we spent an hour or so talking about the last year and our relationship to the podcast. My own anniversary with Three Moves Ahead will not arrive until Episode 94, but I have been listening since week one. And believe me, that first episode was not easy to listen to.

Long before I had even the inkling that I might be a panelist, Three Moves Ahead was one of my favorite gaming podcasts. It was different in style and content from the other podcasts I listened to, and I valued the contrast. After GFW Radio went silent, there was a dearth of intelligent, PC-oriented gaming discussion. Especially for someone who played as many strategy games as shooters and doesn’t give a damn about the Japanese game industry. Three Moves Ahead arrived in the nick of time.

More than the other podcasts I listened to, TMA was about ideas and understanding. At its best, the show is closer to a seminar than a gaming podcast. The panelists arrive with different areas of expertise and slightly different views on what strategy games should be, and each is legitimately interested in what the other has to say. I came away from most episodes feeling like I understood games a bit better than I had before.

Last night they talked about the Mark Walker interview / “debacle” (as Troy called it). But kidding aside, I’ve never understood why they felt that conversation took a wrong turn. It was an intense discussion about game design with a game designer, and they weren’t trashing his game so much as they were offering a strong critique and interrogating him about some of his core design decisions. It’s the kind of thing I wish I heard more of, not less. On a lesser podcast, with less informed and passionate people, an interview like that might have degenerated into rudeness. On Three Moves Ahead, it remained a spirited discussion from beginning to end. And by the time they signed off, I was intensely interested in Lock N Load, a title I had not cared about at all only an hour earlier.

If you asked me what I think separates Three Moves Ahead from its peers, aside from its strategy focus, I would have to say that it’s the panelists’ impatience for having their time wasted. Between their diverse interests and their often busy professional lives, they do not need games merely to stave off boredom and make the hours pass. They demand engaging and thought-provoking experiences.

As a listener and a fan, I think Troy and the other panelists have done a great job of holding Three Moves Ahead to that same standard. I am grateful that he gave me the chance to be a part of it, and to the listeners who helped him decide that I should remain a part of it. I look forward to Year Two.

One Move Behind – Sins Diplomacy

For once, I don’t have too much to add beyond what I said during the podcast. I was a bit more nervous than usual during this recording because I don’t feel all that qualified to talk about Sins of a Solar Empire. As I pointed out during the episode, I didn’t come to this expansion with much Sins experience under my belt, and so I am still struggling to learn the game as a whole, much less the impact of one expansion.

This was one of those times that I really envied the other panelists’ abilities to see into the way strategy games work. I sort of felt like Charlie Brown in that one strip where he and Linus are lying on the hilltop, staring at the clouds. Charlie Brown asks Linus what he sees, and Linus describes this vivid, exciting scene that he perceives in the sky. Then Linus asks Charlie Brown what he sees. “I see a horsey,” he says.

Troy, Tom, and Julian seemed to get Diplomacy and understood the avenues of play that it opened up, while I basically did not. I have yet to decide whether that is my problem or the game’s. My own feeling right now is that Diplomacy runs on a parallel track to everything else I am doing. While I am fighting to stay competitive on the battlefield and keep a robust economy fueling my military, a diplomatic game is going on behind the scenes that allows players to do an end run around the core game. I can’t quite make out the connection between the diplomatic game and the rest of what is going on.

For example, my partner and I were playing a three-sided game and both of us were having serious problems with an AI player. It was overrunning the system and cutting off our avenues of expansion, and we were constantly skirmishing with it. It was an endless cycle of raid and counter-raid, and it was splendid fun. But when I looked at the “Relationships” window, I found that this aggressive AI was more than halfway to a diplomatic victory because of its good relations with other factions. According this readout, it was getting the most diplomatic points from MK and me! Excuse me, but I think if you’re going to be racing for a diplomatic victory, you should probably be penalized for pummeling the living crap out of certain players.

Update: A Discordant Note!

[Now fixed. See update below.] Since we recorded and I wrote the above, MK and I have played a great deal more Diplomacy and have discovered that the game is pretty broken for me. I basically can’t play multiplayer.

It’s insidious, because the game appears to be working. It isn’t until you and your playing partners start really communicating about what you see going on that your realize that you aren’t in the same game.

MK and I were two hours and fifteen minutes into a 2 v 2 v 2 multiplayer match when she asked if I could send a fleet to help her out at the planet Giada. Red had broken their ceasefire and was attacking. I said I could and gave the orders. Then I checked out what was happening in her part of the star system.

“Um, hon, red isn’t attacking you. They’re just hanging out at Giada.”

“What? No, I’m fighting them there right now.”

“I don’t even see any of your ships.”

She came over to my computer. “Wait, this isn’t right. I’m seeing something completely different over there. Does this game model delayed information due to the speed of light?”

I laughed. “No. That’d be awesome, but I don’t think it does. No.”

“Then this is all screwed up. I don’t even see you as owning that planet. I’m seeing that blue owns it.”

As we compared notes and looked at each other’s games, we realized that our games had diverged. In mine, she was at peace with red and I was aggressively expanding into blue’s holdings. In hers, red had just betrayed her and launched a massive attack at her frontier while I was pinned into a corner by an emerging blue superpower. In my game, the pirates were about to launch, while in hers there were 10 minutes left on the countdown timer. Later, going back through our save files, we found that the games had ceased to match after 1 hr 15 min.

It happens in every game we play together, regardless of setup. Now that we’ve started looking for it, we can see it happening as early as a half hour into the game. The pirate countdown de-syncs, and then we start looking for discontinuities. They’re easy to find: ships fighting in the center of an enemy system on my screen, the same fleet just dropping out of a jump on hers.

Depressingly, this appears to be a known issue with the game, and I’m not sure what progress there has been toward resolving it. But it is a total show-stopper if you want to play with friends. It was probably happening in the games I played with Tom and Rabbit, but the diplomatic victory brought the game to a close before anyone could notice.

Add the fact that the game will crash for me after two hours or so of play, and the future for me and Diplomacy starts to look awful stormy. Here’s hoping a patch fixes it soon.

Update II: Fixed

It does appear that the new patch for Diplomacy fixed the sync problem I’d been having. I haven’t had a chance to play more than 90 minutes of the patched version, but we didn’t run into any problems and the games still matched when we finally quit for the day.

I’m sure I’ll be writing more on this game soon.