Posts Tagged ‘ writing

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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The Happiest Happy Hour – September 23

Last weekend some friends of ours got married in one of the best ceremonies and celebrations I’ve ever seen, but that wedding also meant two other things. The first is that MK’s summer break was over, and she had to leave to do the second part of her extended internship. It also meant that I didn’t get any work done over that weekend, which meant that three days’ worth of work had to be crammed into Monday and the early part of Tuesday.

I honestly couldn’t tell you what happened on either of those days. I know that for one of them, I started working at 10 am and finished my last assignment after 1 am. A pizza box on the floor of my apartment and a couple receipts from an Indian and Chinese restaurant indicated I somehow ate this week. But really, it’s been a blur of games, printed drafts covered in red ink, screenshot editors, and a blinking text cursor.

But it’s over now, and I have a couple precious days to cook, clean, and work on some pieces for next week. I feel like I just turned in my last final exam, and I half-expect to find my fraternity brothers waiting for me at the campus bar, a rail gin and tonic with my name on it sitting in its little plastic cup.

Instead, though, it’s just me in my living room with two fingers of Johnnie Black on the rocks, and OK Computer on the stereo. Not bad, but I think I could do with loud laughter, crude sex jokes, and Star Trek discussions.

Still, I can only feel happy and relieved. I survived my first week as a PC Gamer blogger, and you can find me every weekday over at pcgamer.com. This week I was just trying to keep the lights on, because this job arrived on short-notice in the middle of a full freelance schedule. I didn’t do any original pieces. That all changes next week, however. I plan on doing a lot more interviews, impressions pieces, and perhaps even some original reporting. I’ll be linking all of it through my Twitter. Longer, meatier pieces I will link here, on my Work page.

For a moment, then, all is right withe the world. Lara Crigger and I were laughing about how long it takes, and what a huge milestone it is, for a freelancer to break the poverty line. I think I’m there and if things keep up like they are right now, I might actually be making the equivalent of a decent starting salary in a real career.

This, by the way, is why you are unlikely to find me writing anything about how to become a games writer. Until this year, my fourth, I did not earn enough to entirely support myself.  I have a long way to go before I would even be able to contemplate supporting a wife or a child on my own. I say that only because careers are supposed to provide a measure of independence for you and security for those you love. As yet, my work does not. I think it will, eventually, but every time things start going well, some outlet is closed or an editor cancels a regular gig. That’s another part of the freelancer’s life.

I don’t recommend it. If you can do something else, do that, because “making it” means working incredibly hard just for the chance of maybe making a living wage. Knowing that major sources of income could vanish with a couple emails.

Me, I can’t do anything else. Maybe someday. But not today. Today I am proud of my work, and am looking forward to Monday.

Recipe for a Great Spring Day

This spring is making me ridiculously happy, in part because it’s the first real spring I’ve experienced in many, many years. In northern Wisconsin, where I used to live, the ground is covered in snow and ice until April, until it abruptly melts into mud, then bakes in the heat throughout May. “Spring” is what you call the nice couple of weeks that precede the summer heat wave. The weather isn’t much better in northwest Indiana.

Boston winter may have sucked, but it’s making it up to me with days like yesterday and today: sunny, breezy, and cool. It was so nice yesterday that I decided to go work elsewhere, and took  a stroll down to Toscanini’s ice cream in Central Square. There is nothing like eating Caramel Delight ice cream for lunch on a weekday morning to make you feel like being a grown-up is everything you thought it would be when you were a kid.

At the risk of seeming like an unprofessional novice, I will say that yesterday also marked the first time I’ve had two pieces of paid work published on the same day. I could and perhaps should let the occasion pass unremarked, looking on with a cool detachment that says, “This happens to me every day.” But the fact is that it does not happen every day, and yesterday’s milestone was further proof that I am continuing to move the ball down the field. Such morale boosts are important, especially when there are nothing but deadlines as far the eye can see.

The first piece that went up was my GameShark review of Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943. No reader of this blog will be surprise to find that I gave it a positive review, but I reserved most of my judgments for the review itself. This game would have been in “A” territory easily with a little more polish and a less infuriating interface, but even with the user-unfriendliness that I’ve come to associate with eastern European PC games, it’s a really good wargame. A patch was just released that I haven’t had time to play with. Hopefully it addresses some of my complaints.

The other piece that went up is a feature on The Hunter and its moral code that I wrote for The Escapist. I’ll definitely have more to say about this game and this piece later this week, but for now I’ll just point you to the article and let you read it.

Gaming for Haiti

Early in February I started noticing signs around the MIT campus advertising a videogame marathon for Haiti. The Complete Game Completion Marathon would involve several teams working their way through various games for a weekend, and people would donate in support of the effort.

I really didn’t know what to think. It was an odd kind of charity effort, and I had mixed feelings about its methods. I wanted to know more, so I decided to do a feature on the event for GameShark. It was published today.

This was kind of an unusual piece for me. It’s rare that I do field interviews and interact face to face with my subjects, and I have to admit that it felt a little strange to be having long conversations with people whose intentions were so plainly good but whose efforts left me a little skeptical. I felt an ambivalence that they didn’t, and I knew that my piece would probably cast their marathon in a slightly different light than they would. They knew this too, of course, but this is one of the first times in my career that working as a reporter and observer left me feeling slightly uncomfortable. It’s rare that I’m writing about people, you see. Most of the time I’m covering an issue or a creative work. This time, I was observing people doing something they felt passionately about.

That’s part of the bargain, of course. In her foreword to Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Didion remarks that a writer is always selling someone out. Yet you’re also dependent on the kindness of your subjects, and their willingness to let a stranger hang out with them and observe them. But eventually, you have to write about them. And just figuring out what to say means making some judgments.

New Article and Weekend Note

I have a new article up at The Escapist this week called “A Gamer in the Kitchen”, and it is a near-total exercise in self-indulgence as I explain how cooking and gaming hit a lot of the same pleasure centers. While food was the theme of the issue, I have to admit that I was worried people would just say that I was stretching to make a connection that doesn’t exist. While I see clear similarities, there is always that worry that a personal perspective is just a little too individual.

Fortunately, most people seem to have gotten where I’m coming from and enjoyed the article. Now I have to go project my insecurities onto something else. I’m sure I have plenty from which to choose.

At any rate, I badly need this weekend. Between a podcast, a ton of blogging, finishing up production on another article that should (appropriately enough) go up on Valentine’s Day, and a lot of pitching, I am completely wiped out. Not unlike the gentleman across this library table from me, who put down his books, opened his laptop, and fell asleep on it.

So once I finish some proposals and correspondence this afternoon, I am going to get serious about relaxing. There will be drinking, West Wing on DVD, a new Adrian McKinty novel, unhealthy food, and lots of gaming. There will, under no circumstances, be work or thinking about work until Sunday afternoon. I hope you have a good weekend. I plan on having a great one.