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October 30, 2007

360 to 0 in 6 Months

My Xbox 360 has finally decided it's actually having serious problems instead of the odd recurring glitch. On Monday morning I tried playing some Halo 3 online, only to have the console restart itself during matchmaking. On top of that, it refused to open the DVD tray (no matter whether I used the face panel button or the "Open Tray" item on the Dashboard), so I couldn't get the disc out again, nor would the console actually read the disc. Then it started resetting itself repeatedly, as often as once every few seconds; the startup animation would barely commence before the screen went blank again.

I called Microsoft Customer Support last night; over the crackliness of the line (a problem for us up here; the six month wait for the Optus network rollout couldn't be longer, is all we can say) technician Albert and I went through some diagnostic steps, none of which solved the problem. We managed to get the disc out, though, using the old familiar straigtened-paper-clip-in-the-manual-release trick.

In the end, Albert decided the problem required a warranty repair. Unfortunately, before he could finish giving me the instructions, the line dropped out, and although he mentioned sending an e-mail with Microsoft's local reply-paid address to me, it hasn't turned up. Customer Support doesn't re-open until 9AM today, so I'll have to wait until I get home this evening to try calling them again. After it goes, I'm apparently looking at a two-to-three-week turnaround. Hopefully, King Podge and my fellow Commodores of Love won't be too far ahead in ranking and Gamerscores by the time I get it back...

Ah, well. At least this all happened halfway through my warranty period instead of after it expired.

October 27, 2007

Heroism in Digital and Tabletop Gaming

I read a couple of posts online recently that helped me put into words some thinking I’ve occasionally kicked around my brainspace in the last year or so.

Via the Burning Wheel forum, I came to a post on the web log of a fellow named James Wallis (the name rings a bell, but I’m not sure from where). Anyway, in this posting James discusses heroism and how both computer/video games and tabletop RPGs treat it. Please, go and read it, even though I’m going to tell you the gist of it, which is that computer/video games have made failure uninteresting and dull, and that the best, most meaningful way to reverse that is to give the player “actual challenge”, which Wallis basically defines as the consequences of risk to more than just the character’s life, to what the character holds dear outside of personal survival.

There are some fairly obvious things getting in the way of this, of course. The first is character investment. No matter how deep a given character might be, it must still hook its audience into its story. The player has got to give a shit about that character (and by extension what the character holds dear), or else the challenges the character faces won’t mean squat. Secondly, the game must ensure the player can direct how the character faces those choices. Thirdly, the game must ensure that the consequences of those choices present challenges that the player will still find compelling.

A computer game is restricted in how it deals with these three things. Firstly, a game plot, no matter how dynamic it may seem, is static. Even a computer game as sophisticated as the upcoming Mass Effect has been made out to be is a static item. The lead character’s story has already been written; the ways the character can change as a result of the choices it makes are already decided. If you’ve seen any gameplay videos of Mass Effect, you’ll have probably seen its vaunted “conversation tree” system, where you can choose how you respond to another character at almost any point in the conversation. The thing is, once you, the player, pick one of the three-to-four word summaries of your character’s options, the nature of the character’s response is out of your hands. Its tone of voice might be different than you imagined, it might point a gun in an adversary’s face when you thought it’d be cooler (and more in keeping with your idea of the character) to just rest your hand on your gun in its holster, and the adversary can only react in a pre-set way to that response. Effectively, you’re choosing between someone else’s judgments on your character (if I do A, the character becomes more of a good guy; if I do B, he turns into more of an asshole), and even though that big, branching network of moments of judgment might be large and complex, it’s still fixed. It's not tailored to you; it can't be. The game must sell enough copies to make a profit, and as such must reach the highest percentage of its target demographicthat it can.

Therein lies the problem that ties those computer and video games that use narratives back to their “older school” brethren, movies, TV shows, books and comics. Although they seem participatory, the player can’t really participate in a truly meaningful way with their narratives. Holy shit – I just realised. They’re “Choose Your Own Adventure” (or “Fighting Fantasy”) books – highly sophisticated ones with whopping great production values (and their text would probably be the size of the Bible instead of a small paperback), but still very much “If you turn left, go to page 15. If you turn right, go to page 127.”

There’s another issue here, one I only just grasped today. One of the great things about the current and recent crops of character-based TV shows (Heroes, The Shield, Battlestar Galactica, Desperate Housewives, etc.) is what the TV industry has started calling the “water-cooler moment”, when a bunch of people get together after watching an episode of the show and not only discuss the show, but – and here’s the important part, for the purposes of this discussion – what the actions of the lead characters meant to them (the watchers, not the characters). This is interesting because, in theory, by discussing those “oomph” moments, where you as an audience member suddenly formed an opinion about the sort of person that the character is, with someone else” who had their own “oomph” moment, their own judgment, you find out more about that other person, and ideally, about yourself (that’s right, kids, fiction can help you grow).

Now, as I mentioned earlier on, the ways the lead characters on a TV show change are even more out of the audience’s hands than those in a computer game. But here’s another problem. A few years ago, I read an editor’s article in a gaming magazine, maybe PC Power Play¸ which I thought was bollocks at the time but it suddenly making more sense to me. He was discussing the recent release of Warren Spector’s RPG/shooter hybrid opus, Deus Ex (that ought to date it), but instead of praising the branching, each-player-experiences-it-differently storyline like everyone else, he was actually lamenting the freedom-to-experience-it-your-own-way the game offered. His main argument, if I remember rightly, was that because everyone was experiencing a slightly or even drastically different game from everyone else, it was extremely unlikely that anyone would have any common ground on which to meaningfully discuss his or her play experience with anyone else. In other words, the extreme customisability of the single player experience In other words, the extreme customisability of the single player experience cut down on the number of water-cooler moments; it's an antisocial element.

The only way around this, he said, is to play the game multiple times, making different decisions each time – and even though these games are often advertised on their replayability, how many people play such a spanning, thirty-to-sixty hours game as Deus Ex, or Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, more than once? Very few, he argued, and although he didn’t have more than anecdotal evidence, I found myself agreeing with his assessment. Hell, I’ve occasionally slapped KotOR into the Xbox CD tray, but I’ve never played for more than half an hour before I’ve gotten bored with doing all the same stuff – and “taking the other path” just doesn’t interest me, as much as I'd love to show off that drily homicidal droid HK-47 to all and sundry.

An immediate suggestion to change this would be to somehow add a co-operative multiplayer element to these games; let a group of players make a character each and enter the game world. That suggestion, though, would doubtlessly leave even the legendary gamemakers at Bioware and Bethesda shaking their heads. It’s enough trouble creating a complex and involving branching-story for a single player. How do you create several of them, not just to be played out simultaneously, but also influencing each other? How does a single game cater to teams of varying sizes? God knows, Bungie had a tough enough time crafting a compelling two-to-four-player tactical co-op experience for Halo 3. Chuck in a storyline for not just the Chief and the Arbiter, but their two voiceless Elite backups, and allow each player to have an impact on the other’s story… How the hell does a pre-designed game story tree do that?

There is an answer, of sorts. Get somebody to tailor the story on-the-fly to the players. Someone who can decide whether, and how, an NPC would react if a player makes a subtle threat instead of an overt one, or out of nowhere decides to threaten the NPC’s family. Now, this is something that no home console or PC can do, and may never be able to do. I’ve long maintained that meaningful stories about human beings can only be told through human beings, and I believe it takes another human being to determine what sort of pressure should next be brought to bear on a player character.

At the moment, computer games are still catching up to this ideal of enabling a human being to manage a plot being played through by other human beings. The first serious commercial attempts at this are, I think, Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights games, which have long been praised for the tools they provide for user-generated content. Those tools, however, haven’t been exactly easy to use; the first iteration of the Aurora engine for Neverwinter Nights required prospective DMs and builders of modules (parcels of plots and settings which usually have a linear, branching story like regular computer-RPGs) to learn how to program using a language similar to Visual Basic, and that’s just for the creation of encounters and scripted plot events. Current generations may be easier to use, but still require a large amount of very methodical pre-preparation, with no necessary guarantee that players will enjoy the content created, especially if the players are people the designer has never met. Actually going beyond the scenery, characters and monsters provided by the game requires full-on 3D design and animation software like 3DStudioMax and the skill to use it competently. Actually taking all of this and using it to create character-based plot events on the fly for a bunch of friends playing online must be another order of magnitude entirely; so much so that I’m not sure anyone’s done it successfully.

Tabletop RPGs, of course, have had someone doing this for most their entire history. That someone occupies the role most commonly known as “game master”. Whether the pressure is purely tactical, purely character-based or a mix of both, it’s the game master who reads the group of players and, to borrow from Robin Laws, decides what the most entertaining thing that he or she can do next is, what the nature of the pressure to come will be, whom it should be applied to and when to apply it. A one-paragraph description can usually enable players to imagine the sort of sets props, scenes and characters that games still can’t quite reach with multi-million dollar budgets and 1080p graphics. A game master can adjust a non-player character’s reaction to a player’s action and tailor a response specifically to that the player and the group that both are part of more responsively than the fastest console and most detailed conversation tree. And the recent couple of generations of roleplaying games that have focused on narrative (Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, Primetime Adventures) or combined narrative with tactical challenge, witht the latter serving the former (Burning Empires) have shown that a whole series of successful, thoroughly-enjoyed game sessions with meaningful and meaty risks to what player characters hold dear can be created with not much more preparation time than a day’s worth of work between world/character creation and the first episode. Helli, the designer of Dogs in the Vineyard all but admits in the text that his game is intended to enable a group to create water-cooler moments and discuss them amongst each other afterwards.

Even so, for a hobby that’s been going around thirty years, it’s taken until the very late nineties for a sizeable body of RPG product to appear which bases its core rule set around generating character-based pressure. Most of the titles mentioned above have only been published since 2003. How long it will take the computer and video game industry to successfully implement the methods of play these tabletop RPGs pioneer, if ever, is anyone’s guess. This is why I think, for the moment at least, the tabletop roleplaying game is the only venue in which James Wallis’ ideal of meaningful heroism in a game can occur.

October 11, 2007

Living Between Games

Quite frankly, when I think over most of my teenage and adult years, it’s fair to say that I didn’t have much in the way of personal confidence. This might surprise you if you’re one of the folks who’s known me for a long while. I used to carry a lot of nicknames like, “Smiley”, “The Grin With Legs” and “Yoshi”, after the creature in the Mario games that was always happy (a lass at the post office in North Sydney named me that). The odd thing is, although I smiled a lot, I wasn’t ever really happy, especially not with myself. I think I was trying to convince everyone else I was just fine, mainly because, like pretty much everything else, I was doing it because it was what people expected of me – and, as such, I was almost always depressed. I mean, remember how I always used to insist on being called “Robert”? How could someone as easy-going as a Smiley be that uptight?

During that time, I think the one thing I most wanted was to organise and run an ongoing RPG campaign. It was the one idea that dominated my waking time (well, that and sex, I suppose). Vickie once said, maybe a year after we met, that I got into roleplaying games, and perhaps the game master’s role in particular, because the offered me a sense of control that was otherwise very fleeting. She was right on the money. Again, if you played in a game I was running, especially Black Talon or that Primetime Adventures Skype game I tried to set up, you knew how panic-prone I was about the campaign concept, my players’ ideas for characters, how I’d have GM’s Block about the next session, how it was all crap and not going to work. Some of it was because I don’t really think I had an idea of the sort of fun I wanted out of RPGs, but some of it was definitely that need for control asserting itself. Maybe the two problems were really one and the same?

Not so long ago, Vickie was talking with me about the general improvement she’d noticed in my mental wellbeing. I will say that over the past few months I’ve been doing better than I’ve been in the past, quite a bit better. What Vickie said to me was that I’d stopped living between games.

The problem is, since SRDU and maybe a bit before, maybe since Halo 3 came out, I’ve noticed myself doing it again – life becomes marking time until the next time I can sit down to a game session. With Halo 3 it’s not so bad – I can usually connect to Xbox Live and join a match without much difficulty. But RPGs are a different story. With RPGs, you need a group, three to four other people. Organising that number of people in Sydney was bad enough, but up here… well, you’ve read enough of my posts about new RPG rulebooks and campaign ideas and forum threads and get-togethers and aborted sessions to know how the hobby’s been for me in Cairns.

So in the meantime, I read the rulebook, check my e-mail inbox for responses to the request I sent out for people interested in Star Wars Saga Edition (one so far, which does not a game group make), go to the Wizards of the Coast official Star Wars RPG forum and see whether the read count on the post I put up there has increased any, and if so, whether there’s been an actual response (nope), then read the rulebook again, thinking about potential problems in the campaign that doesn't even exist yet. And Vickie shakes her head in exasperation and leaves me alone until I realise how miserable I’m making myself, living between games.

(Halo 3 doesn’t quite give me what I’m looking for either. What I really want out of my Xbox Live experience is not to meet up with people from across the world, but to game with the folks I know right here, in real life. Even that rarely seems to work out; a friend will log in just as I’m shutting down so that Vickie can actually have access to the TV, or I’ll wait for a friend to show up with no result. Yet rather than logging off when no one’s around, I’ll still play a game so I can up my Gamerscore, or my Halo 3 EXP and skill rank, just to try and keep up with the friends I just want to socialise with…)

Can I do anything about this? I don’t know. I mean, I’ve tried socialising, but all anyone near my age seems to want to talk about nowadays is getting drunk and/or partying until their noses bleed, not to mention who is, was, might or might not be sacking up with whom. I play soccer almost every week, but attempts to organise team barbecues always seem to judder to a halt amid a morass of conflicting schedules. Let’s face it, gaming is a social crutch for me, at least in part; it gives a social gathering both a sense of structure and the promise of not just being entertained, but also entertaining others. Yet life without the crutches doesn’t seem that rewarding. Maybe that’s the depression talking again, the fear of not being in control, of being out of my depth. I still struggle with depression some, again not as much as I used to – and it feels good to give it a name, a label, some sense of control over it (control again). But it’s still there. I still get the odd moment when I feel like a stupid, slow-thinking waste of space with little to offer but snark and an absence of courage. Who’d want to socialise with that?

In those moments, every mistake I make, every time I put my foot in my mouth, every task forgotten or neglected, is just further evidence that there’s no point to me. Thankfully, those moments pass, but when I’m in the midst of them, there’s the thought that sooner or later, no matter how hard I try, they’ll be back again. Moments like that, I think the best thing I can do is sell, bin or burn every RPG book I have, just get shut of the fucking hobby, get it out of my life so I can stop just waiting for the next session, the next nonexistent campaign, and maybe get started on figuring out what I really need to be doing with my life.

I haven’t yet, and Vickie usually has to do a little psychotherapeutic massaging to get me to see that if I did, all I’d be really doing is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But I still don’t quite know what the next step is.

October 07, 2007

Spring Revel Down Under 07 Review

Spring Revel Down Under 2007 wound up a couple of hours ago. My general experiences at the event were chronicled over on the MySpace, but I’d like to add some more detailed thoughts about the experience here.

Firstly, I think I’ll take a bit more time for my next con and try a broader variety of stuff. I mentioned in the MySpace post that the Ruins of Discovery back-to-back module was very much a dungeon crawl, which suited the very tactical players at my table fine but left me, an inexperienced D&D player, a bit out in the cold; my sole effective capability was the casting of magic missile and any other action or suggestion was criticised as a bad move (the annoying thing was, from a “get the party in and out alive” standpoint they weren’t wrong).

A couple of more experienced con-goers explained to me before prizegiving that the Ruins modules are oriented toward dungeon-delving and associated tactical challenges. When I went in, I was basically looking for LG modules of APL (approximate party level) of 2 so that I could play my first level sorcerer, and Ruins of Discovery fit the bill so I decided to stick with it. Pretty much everyone else at the table signed up knowing what they were in for. So, in order to decrease the odds of playing something I don’t like for the whole con, I’ll sign up for more modules next time and make characters up appropriately.

On Friday night, a whim prompted me to log onto the RPGA website and try the test for Herald-level certification. This basically means sanction to game master an RPGA module, whether at an RPGA-sanctioned event or at home. The test is twenty multiple choice questions with an hour to answer, and can be taken with the three D&D v3.5 corebooks to hand. As such, you can achieve certification with no more than one incorrect response. I got three, which isn’t too bad; Bruce Paris told me that he took the test six times before he was certified.

Today’s session, the Star Wars Saga Edition module "Prelude to Defiance", was fun, though. I bought the Star Wars Saga Edition rulebook on Saturday, and I am very pleased with the changes they’ve made to it. While it’s still a D20 System game, it feels much less like “Dungeons & Dragons with some cosmetic, Star Wars-esque changes” than the previous two editions. I’d even be tempted to say it’s on a par with the final West End Games edition. It’s apparently a preview of some of the changes that are being made to Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, and if it, the information Wizards of the Coast has released thus far via website and podcast, and some discussion at SRDU are any indication, I think I’m going to find 4th Edition a lot less intimidating and a lot more fun.

In the meantime, I’m definitely keen on doing some more Star Wars, and am probably going to put out overtures to various gamers in the next couple of days. Simon and Cristel’s schedules have settled down a lot recently, and I think a lot of the local gamers who played “Prelude to Defiance” at SRDU are very keen on more. Here’s hoping!

October 04, 2007

September '07 Catch-Up

Hi, everybody. Another week-long break between postings. There’ve been a few reasons for that – busy-ness at work, a bout of illness and a dose of “OMG T3h n3w g4m3zz0rz!”.

On the work-related front, things have been in catch-up mode since Amateurs, the local equivalent of the Melbourne Cup. As my counterpart Imi (now there’s a thought – which of us is C-3PO and which is R2-D2?) was tied up with organising the invitation mailout, which had its own share of problems, things like entering ongoing ads in advance fell behind. Then I racked off for a week to go see Steely Dan (more on that later, maybe over on the MySpace), and shortly after I got back, Imi racked off for a week herself, touring and recording with some band friends of hers. So with only one of us on for two weeks, things got even further behind.

I let the stress get to me and as such, it’s perhaps not a surprise that I wound up with a head cold last weekend. It got worse this week, such that I wound up taking a half-day off yesterday to recover. I was croaking into the phone a few times that morning. Thankfully, that afternoon definitely did me some good, because I felt much better going back to work this morning. We’ve still got a bit of catching up to do, but we’re in a pretty good place for it.

And then there’s the game. Some of you already know this, but I’m currently up to my eyeballs in the Xbox 360’s blockbuster release, Halo 3. I’ve finished the Campaign on Normal difficulty and am currently working on my Xbox Live ranking whilst making tentative overtures to anyone who might be interested in trying to clock the campaign on Legendary difficulty cooperatively online. Even Karl went and got himself a 360 and Halo 3 recently, although as he doesn’t have a broadband Internet account he can’t hook up for any online action. So if anyone out there is interested in making a regular meeting online and saving the universe for a few weeks, get in touch! Australian players only, though; I tried playing Campaign with someone in the US recently and the lag was horrifying!