The Secret World is not entirely grindy

It is still possible to play this game a lot. To binge it, even. Though in Secret World this feels much less about compulsion, gilt carrots or maliciously labyrinthine design. I'd compare it to Skyrim before I would Warcraft, in that the content feels like content.

One example I've been throwing around is of Sam Krieg, a bestselling New England author who's holed up in a lighthouse while zombies ravage the little island. I found this guy, my favorite character, after saying,

"Cool lighthouse. I wonder if anything's going on there."

Then braving the weird horrors in the fog, which take inspiration from Lovecraft, Poe, and pulpier American authors. Then being rewarded with a quest I'd describe as anti-grind.

All repetitive behavior as "destructive and unreasonable"? This guy is cool. He lambastes my sexy Illuminati superheroine, saying that as a writer he's got a damn good excuse to repeat himself: it makes him millions. But what's my excuse? What's the player's excuse?

The quest takes typical grindy mechanics, then adds little twists. For instance, we kill a set number of zombies by impaling rotting corpses (irresistible zombie bait, as we all know) at the edge of a bluff. The animations aren't perfect (especially clear in the more lightly funded Egypt and Transylvania expansions) but we get to watch zombies goofily launch themselves off cliffs. The game, sometimes by adding extra little flourishes of programming, sometimes by creating riddles which require Latin Vulgate dictionaries and thoughtful deduction, pokes fun at MMOs in general. 

The combat is made interesting by a mix-n-match system. It's one of the first times I've enjoyed being the mage sort of character.

The fun of designing your own weird combat is, tragically or wonderfully (I'm really not sure), mostly a creative fun. Some of the animations get ridiculous to the point of pure comic gold, as one swirling pistol attack which should probably involve a half-empty bottle of vodka. It's just not gripping. 

The cutscenes have their share of charming moments. I get the sense the writers had carte blanche to be the best possible kind of weird. 

Hitting the paywalls in TSW isn't fun, but I didn't until about 20 hours in. Their in-game store is super basic, and not very usable. Almost like the wacky quest writers also got to label their DLC so as to make it nigh-impossible to buy anything. 

Their store is also restrictive. You can't gift DLC (like, wtf? You guys don't like money?).

Like most MMOs, once the content runs dry, what's left appears to be grindy endgame for gears (destructive and unreasonable, much?). That made a sad panda, since in so many other parts of the MMO oeuvre they'd found innovative solutions. For most sane human beings, this is going to be an awesome treat of content (actual content!), on most logins. For anyone with a history of problematic use, I don't recommend playing alone. I'm conflicted myself since the questing phase was so delightful and easy to take-or-leave. It's worth seeing, but only if you can do it strictly with friends. 

That said, right now I'm staring off the edge of a gear precipice. I look, and wonder if I've finally learned not to jump. 


Humble Paleontology

Yeah, yeah. A few months later I crawl back here, to drop a few unceremonious words.

PAX was fun. One gentleman took this picture with his Google Glass.

neils at pax. with coffee, but probably not enough coffee.

Apparently there was also Much Video. That particularly unimpressed look is probably me telling him to, like, kindly quit with the ninjalike lifecapture.

Then I got to wear his specs. He activated this easter egg whereby I could turn 360, and everywhere around me were the developers for Glass. Here's one brusquely-grabbed shot to illustrate, courtesy google images.

The point was that I felt like I was right there, and all it took was a tiny screen next to one eye. If they ever release this, it's going to multiply everything we've been saying about games by 100x. Maybe that's exaggerating. It's also probably untrue, in that Google Glass will add altogether new elements to those conversations.

I also spoke at PAX, for the first time. Once with the delightful, brilliant Anna DiNoto, on how to keep play in balance with everything else in life. And then again, with James Portnow, about how games are art, and why that matters. I loved both, but have to admit that the art one felt a lot more powerful and impassioned (probably a fair comparison when the other is a finely tuned one on "balance"). There were also roughly 10 times as many people at the art talk (many there to catch James, before he rode off into the pixelated sunset). Still, on day three, I saw the line building up and said aloud,

"We're gonna need a bigger latte."

When the talks were said and done, it was good to see the friends I mostly only catch up with at things like PAX and GDC. They're good folk.

So, only one more thing to announce. A few weeks ago I wrapped up the first draft of a book I've been plugging away at. It mixes my collected games research from the last decade or so, with all the weird stories I have from growing up around games. I think it could make for a good context to help non-gamers get what we're doing, but more I wrote it for the miscreants I've played with all these years. One in particular, a guy who's been my friend for years, who we all call Squatch.

And maybe also myself. It feels good to have a chunk of words that I'm happier with than anything else I've done.

While it's good to have something to show for all that work, the finding-agents and selling-books phase has never been my favorite thing. But then again, I like what I've done. I think that should help. It's exciting.


Teamwork 101: Or How I Escaped Bronze in the League of Legends

For those that read this blog for game studies, psych research, or because (apparently) there's a page that's a top google hit for "sweet ass pictures," sorry! Today I'm just posting a quick guide that I wrote after getting out of the time-out corner in the League of Legends: Bronze Division.

Since it's at the bottom, you often deal with the worst kind of gamerly element: trolls, misogynists, racists, the employed. You can win, in despite of all that, with a mix of compromise and communication.

(More after the break)



How Games are Art: A Very Slightly Extended Version

Note: This version includes a few minor selections from Dutton's book, as well as higher-res images. The version I plan to cross-post to Gamasutra, a bit later, I want to keep at or close to 100 words. I say only very slightly extended, because this topic is insanely huge

In 2009, aesthetician Denis Dutton wrote The Art Instinct. There, aiming for something inclusive and objective, he outlined twelve cross-cultural criteria for art. I like Dutton for his mix of accessibility and intellect, so use his criteria as a starting line in the search for a language of the aesthetic experience.

1. Direct Pleasure

“The art object – narrative story, crafted artifact, or visual and aural performance – is valued as a source of immediate experiential pleasure in itself, and not essentially for its utility in producing something else that is either useful or pleasurable.”

2. Skill & Virtuosity

“The admiration of skill is not just intellectual; skill exercised by writers, carvers, dancers, potters, composers, painters, pianists, singers, etc. can cause jaws to drop, hair to stand up on the back of the neck, and eyes to flood with tears.”

Some creators:


3. Style
“Style provides a stable, predictable, “normal” background…”

“…against which artists may create elements of novelty and expressive surprise.”

4. Novelty & Creativity

“The unpredictability of creative art, its newness, plays against the predictability of conventional style or formal type (sonata, novel, tragedy, and so forth).”

5. Criticism
“Professional criticism, including academic scholarship applied to the arts where it is evaluative, is a performance itself and subject to evaluation by its larger audience; critics routinely criticize each other.”

Some critics: 


6. Representation

“…a realistic painting of the folds in a red satin dress, a detailed model of a steam engine, or the tiny plates, silverware, goblets, and lattice-crust cherry pie on the dinner table of a doll’s house. But we can also enjoy representation for two other reasons: we can take pleasure in how well a representation is accomplished, and we can take pleasure in the object or scene represented…”

7. Special Focus

“A gold-curtained stage, a plinth in a museum, spotlights, ornate picture frames, illuminated showcases, book jackets and typography, ceremonial aspects of public concerts and plays, an audience’s expensive clothes, the performer’s black tie, the presence of the czar in his royal box, even the high price of tickets…”

8. Expressive Individuality

9. Emotional Saturation
“…emotions provoked or incited by the represented content of art…”

Or, “…the work’s emotional contour, its emotional perspective…”

10. Intellectual Challenge

“…working through a complex plot, putting evidence together to recognize a problem or solution before a character in a story recognizes it, balancing and combining formal and illustrative elements in a complicated painting, and following the transformations of an opening melody recapitulated at the end of a piece of music.”

11. Art Traditions & Institutions

“Art objects and performances, as much in small-scale oral cultures as in literate civilization, are created and to a degree given significance by their place in the history and traditions of their art.”

12. Imaginative Experience

“Finally, and perhaps the most important of all characteristics on this list, objects of art essentially provide an imaginative experience for both producers…”

“…and audiences.”

That’s how some games are already art, and how others might get better.


Languages of Experience

Note: I'm about to cross-post this at gamasutra. I'd thought about using this blog for a version with a lot more cheeky personal rambling. Still might, I did enjoy the bit about how I make games while double-fisting tequila and redbull. For now, I'm going to keep the two posts the same.

This GDC I had the pleasure of watching two well-known game designers nearly stand up shouting, as they violently agreed over minute distinctions between “fun” and “engagement.” Say what you will about Cart Life (they did) but anything that gets us that excited about a whole medium is working.

I don't want to give a precise summary of last month's game theory writing, by Dan Cook, Robert Yang, Mattie Brice, and Raph Koster, or the spark lit by Leigh Alexander,  the flights of Anna Anthropy, and the veritable army of posts, comments, and prognostications which colored the exchanges. Read it, if you want a sense of how we’re juggling the want for useful discourse, with the want to relish artistic freedom, to violently resist assimilation.

But even when we’re being loud, I’m struck by how much we’re agreeing in different languages. Raph Koster has been cheering on crazy, new shit for over a decade. Anna Anthropy says that everyone should be making personal, cool shit. Their outlooks don't seem all that different, on the face. The arguments signal to me that procedural literacy – the shit that we can only learn by interacting with game systems – has already begun to create new and robust experiences for which we lack words. Excepting the work of a few genius-level writers working on games – among which I’d count Patricia Hernandez, Cara Ellison, and Ian Bogost – we fall over ourselves trying to describe the power of the medium. And there's a really good reason that we'll keep falling over, and violently agreeing:

Games can do anything.

In games, we can recreate any experience within or without the human experience. And there are dozens of vetted, objective vocabularies for the human experience. I’m interested in outlining five: for cultural criticism, human engagement, human manipulation, spatiality, and aesthetics. We can and do use these languages to break down literature, poetry, cinema, sculpture, a range of mediums which includes games. But in games we go beyond reading or watching an experience. We live it. We can't help but live it. Procedurality means we need to get involved, it’s the major ordinance of games. Books say, know me. Television says, gaze at me. Games say, touch me.
Gamers will sometimes grasp behaviorism, positive psychology, art, and design implicitly and inseparably, because they've touched them, walked through them. With a few gorgeous exceptions –most of which I’ve ruthlessly pillaged, and some of which are listed below – older academic languages aren’t so holistic. Games are. Games are systems designed to be experienced. We have a lot of great work right now on how they function as systems, and similarly rich work on the craft of design. Where we’re lagging is in understanding the experience. If we can live games, then we can understand them through the languages used to analyze life.

Over the next few weeks, I want to talk about these languages in turn. Each could lend both precision and depth to conversations about why and how games matter.

1)    The Language of Cultural Critique Challenge

As a note: if I do lay out parts of a language on cultural criticism, it would be strictly academic. As a completely privileged white man, rarely do I encounter oppression that’s openly institutionalized. While I can lay out some theoretical work on othering, gender, cultures of abuse, and certain structures of oppression, my goal is to assemble a language, not solve anyone’s problems. If you’re reading this and think you can make a language which genuinely cares to help creators assess and elevate their challenges to existing social ills, maybe even generate new forms of empathy, then what are you waiting for? If there are objective vocabularies that you already use, then I really want to hear about them.

2)    The Language of Human Engagement

Some of the scholars adding to the language of human engagement do come from the games industry. “Fun” is the sweet spot, for commercial consultants and the media industry both. You see clear paths to fun in the work of folks like Rigby and Ryan, Nicole Lazzaro, and Raph. In psychology we can (and many do) pull from the standard folks like Cziksentmihaly and Maslow. It's also interesting to get into the deeper happiness research, with folks like George Vaillant, Frankl, and the parts of Maslow that don't involve pyramids. It's there you can start to plumb for the difference between pedestrian human happiness, and a depth of fulfillment.

3)    The Language of Human Manipulation

This language could clarify the line between engagement and manipulation for creators and the general populace both, by covering work in radical behaviorism, neuropsychology, motivational psychology, as well as their present applications within gaming. For a very non-confrontational instance, in what Dr. Nick Yee has called the Proteus Effect, embodiment alone can change behavior. Further, he's found that morphing an individual's face onto that of a political candidate caused significant increases in whether a respondent would vote for that candidate. With this possibility that media might (perhaps forcibly) change behavior, an understanding of human manipulation is growing increasingly vital for civic life, to say nothing of the subtlety of aesthetic expression.

4)    The Language of Spatiality

Architecture has long been asserted to shape behavior, for instance in Jeremy Bentham's Big Brother-style prison, the Panopticon. As with then, contemporary CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) puts a major focus on architecture for deterring criminals. Though some vocabulary can be inferred from crime prevention projects, academics such as Don Norman hold out hope that we can free the conversation to be used in the pursuit of human fulfillment. Games-savvy academics have been working with government agencies to apply what we know. Spatiality is also a great place to point out deep links between these languages – for instance – between space and art, space and happiness, even the role of space in manipulation and oppression. Ultimately, these languages are meant to work in tandem, and expand past just five.

5)    The Language of Aesthetic Experience

Objective languages for aesthetic experience could jump the debate of whether games are art, focusing instead on how games fulfill established aspects of art. For one instance, if you compared games to Denis Dutton's twelve-item, cross-cultural aesthetic vocabulary, it becomes fairly clear how our medium has already fulfilled every established role of art. Dutton pulls on folks like Aristotle, Plato, Kant, and Hume. McLuhan, Warhol, John Cage, and Walter Benjamin also have a great deal to offer. It is also possible, once assessing their theories, to map ways in which games add wholly unprecedented vistas to the aesthetic experience.

Other fields and works are ripe with languages for experience. Critical theory, social psychology, education.

Languages for experience don't just hold potential for informing games. If games help us to compile, and then refine our languages for experience: for engagement, space, manipulation, aesthetics, oppression, and beyond, the literate naturally take those and use them to better discuss life. Notation once helped music to be understood, to expand and flourish. Once we can see firsthand how game spaces inspire and fulfill, once we understand and hardy ourselves to commonplace manipulation, and when more people can objectively critique art, humans refine our ability to make powerful, positive changes in all of our spaces. Online and off.

I’d really enjoy hearing feedback on this outlook, the meta idea, but maps for these languages aren’t the kind of thing that can be plopped and done. No matter how perennial the idea behind a word, language is a living thing. If any of it sounds relevant to your interests, then leave a little love!


At the GDC

I cross-posted this as my first gamasutra blog. I'm not sure how their process functions, so for now I thought I'd set it here as well. This GDC was at times intense and serendipitous: I survived a 15 hour drive on no sleep, and was invited into locked basements for traditional Chinese folk music. It was in equal parts meditative, almost boring. I walked alone through a lot of San Francisco, spent time in a couple of cathedrals, and was singled out by the one-legged maybe-a-monk.

Fun week, though. Hope you enjoy. 

This GDC is really weird,” says Jesse.

“Why?” Asks Soraya.

“Because every year everyone seems to know what's happening. Like, maybe one year it's the PS3. Or another year it's motion controls. This GDC, nobody knows what the fuck is going on.”

Adam Sessler is chatting animatedly with a group of random developers, outside the Hotel St. Regis. He's wearing a very stylish hat. I idly wonder what he's been up to, since G4 got bought out. Another part of our group is having a very serious conversation, maybe on business development, while we wait to hit the food courts hidden under the Westfield Mall-thing. Jesse is teaching Soraya a game that he, a former Disney Imagineer, developed while he and his daughter had been waiting in long lines. I mention that their faces look a lot like people playing Johann Sebastian Joust. Jesse looks over, with a very suspect grin.

“Oh man! Have you played Wushu Turtle?”

“Err, no?” I say.

He reaches into a pocket. “Guess who has turtles?”

I fucking love the Indie Games Festival.

Dys4ia. Year Walk. Thrity Flights of Loving. FTL. Terry Cavanaugh. Brendon Chung. A dozen badass people I've never met, all of them just sitting around, showing off magic.

I fucking love it.

Walking away from that part of the show floor, I just randomly saw the very last game developer for which I could anticipate nerding out. Raph Koster was wearing an old, grey hoodie and dad jeans.

“Hi Raph Koster,” I say. “You are amazing.”

“Well thanks!” He says, “Who are you?”

The name on my badge has been blocked by a highlighter-colored Hello Kitty.

“Right,” I say, handing him a Hello Kitty business card. “You linked a thesis I once wrote. That was way cool.”

He's peering at the back of the business card. “Oh right. I'd have known that, if I had just been able to see your name.”

And then we proceed to talk about durians, for a moment, before we go our separate ways. I never mention that Star Wars Galaxies – a game for which Raph was the creative lead – taught me how to take chances. That it showed me, first-hand, that I could strive to do big things.

“Could you please lower your voices?” Croaks the hunched, white-haired lady behind us.

I'm pretty sure I'm the only one who hears her, but am loving this conversation about “fun” and “engagement” too much to stop either of the two tired men. James wants more than fun. He was just given a 20-year-old roleplay guidebook for holocaust internment camps. Nick wants better fun. He just came from an IGF awards ceremony that glossed over beautiful, innovative designs. Over the past ten minutes, their volume grew to block out near every other sound in the crowded Westfield food court.

Gameplay can be boring, and still be meaningful.” Says James. “It can be hard, or tedious. Wrapping tedium in gameplay sends a message. Right?”

“No. Boring gameplay is just bad gameplay. We're past that. Other mediums know how to make tedium fun. It's why I keep coming back to Fight Club. Fifteen seconds and we know Tyler Durden's job is boring. Fifteen fucking seconds and we still give the gameplay award to Cart Life. Profound respect to that game, right. Did it deserve to win narrative? Yes. Did it have beautiful art? Yes. But gameplay? I mean--”

“EXCUSE ME... SIR.” Says the old lady, for the fifth time. “Lower your tone!”

Nick turns around, and puts a hand over his chest. “Oh my gosh, I am so, so sorry.”

James says, “We need to do this more often. I love it when we violently agree.”


“Wow. I don't get it.” Says a younger game designer. “Why get so worked up if you both agree?”

“Because these kinds of tiny distinctions will fundamentally alter how this medium develops.”

“Is he good people?” Asks the Conference Associate honcho. He gives me the Buddy Christ double-thumbs-up, paired with a questioning look.

I return the pose.

He grins, “Good enough for me.”

And so I chat with a few random CAs before we move to Johann Sebastian Joust. The conference has wound down for the day, and here's a group of about 200 men and women in red shirts. A few of them pass along the Joust batons, and face off. Between the smiles and the game faces, you can tell they've each seen hundreds of game worlds. Some have even made a few. For a week, here in San Francisco, they get to be around old friends. There's a weeklong League of Legends CA tourney. There's a dragon's hoarde of board games. They're masters of Witch Hunter / Vampire Hunter / Mafia.

They are, for a week, family.

At a lunch, later in the week, I met Lincoln the CA. He could be in his late 40's, with a shaved head and a graying handlebar moustache. He lives just down the street from the Moscone Center, where he's volunteered as a CA for twelve years. It'd be thirteen, if not for a year where he was sick (though he still got out to say hi to a few people). A love of D&D brought him to his first GDC. He'd quit a bank job for a chance to work around games. He teased me for the Hello Kitty over my nametag.

“Clearly you've never been a CA.”

“Hey, you guys can scan over the top of it. You have the technology. I did move it once, though, to make that easier for a CA.”

“You could, you know, move it again.”

His wry grin is infectious. But he allowed me to simply grin back, and keep the Hello Kitty positioned just the way I liked it. I really hope I see him again next year.

Data doesn't lie. Especially not the data from EEDAR.

In 2012, the top 50 games in North America spent 350m in marketing, and that marketing war is expanding.

53% of gaming magazine covers are for shooters.

WoW makes 500m a year in subscriptions. WoT makes 350m a year in profit. CoD made a 1.6b.

Good games with good marketing make around seven times as much as the good games with bad marketing (emphasis on the around - I'm grossly paraphrasing a beautifully arranged dataset).

To the Moon moved a couple hundred thousand copies.

Limbo did okay. Minecraft made money. Dear Esther moved me. Botanicula made me cry. Flotilla and Star Wars Galaxies spoke to me on profound levels.

I've never played a Call of Duty game for more than a couple hours. If I've even played one; I get it confused with all the other big budget games trying desperately to look exactly like it and tackle its market share.

It's been a long time since the title “gamer” held any meaningful association in my mind. When the industry was small, maybe. But for years now, calling yourself a gamer has been tantamount to calling yourself a TV watcher. There are differences between Sponge Bob, Fox News, Survivor, and the surgery channel. With tens of thousands of new games coming out yearly, and 60% of the USA playing games “to pass the time,” the distinctions matter.

The people making games are still a community. I left this GDC thinking of them as an extended family.

But I still haven't figured out where I fit. Riding shotgun back to San Jose, in the dark, I'm a little disappointed by that. After all the truly strange, nearly mystical happenings, my place in the gaming cosmos hadn't revealed itself in any blinding burst of light.

So I mention that outloud.

“What is it you want?” Asks another writer. “Money? Power? I mean, be honest with yourself.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I really don't know. Somehow I thought it'd just, be clear.”

I ask the driver, who reasonably says that he doesn't really know me. But he eventually adds, “Think of your life as a wheel with nine spokes. They could be anything. Money, love, anything. But think about how big each spoke is right now, and decide where you want them to be in five years time.”

I write that down, while we try to decide whether it's the Caterpillar or the Cheshire Cat that asks Alice which direction she'll go.

The first writer says, “In five years, what sort of effect do you want to have?”

So I tell him. And it's personal. And when I'm done, I realize that I'm crying. Something I haven't really done since finishing a very neat indie game. I don't think anyone in the car notices.

Later, I go to draw out the spokes of my life, and I realize something. Maybe that the whole exercise is a paradox. Wheels need balanced spokes, if they're going to roll. There's something that I want, in five years. Something that I'd sacrifice for. But if I'm going to get there, nine other spokes need to exist. They need to be in place, but they need to be strong enough not to shred at the first rock in the road.

The games industry has a lot of component parts, each represented by people. New wheels and new spokes and new technologies will surely come. But maybe – just maybe – now's one of those times where we balance what we have. Maybe it's time to use the wheel to get somewhere.


The Comicon Buddy System

My second visit to the Emerald City Comicon was much, much better than the first. It was all about the people.

There were a few good people the first time around. I was lucky to run into an amazingly talented nerd rock singer / highschool friend. Saw a friend or two from a Tacoma comic shop. Then a couple friends with perfectly sculpted costumes. The kind of movie-set-quality Lobster Johnson and Harley Quinn that you can't buy (this year they were the Monarch/Dr. Girlfriend showing up in a bunch of the ECCC slideshows I failed to farm for filler photos).

Via Seattle Weekly's excellent ECCC 2013 slideshow

But they all had this one thing in common: they'd followed the buddy system. They'd either driven in with someone, or sometimes buddied up with fellow geeks once they'd arrived. They knew, and I really didn't. Without a buddy, I was done with the show almost right after I'd parked.

This time, Squatch was my buddy. He'd only ever been to the TriCities' RadCon, a gathering roughly 1/32nd the size. He'd read comics his whole life, and folks like Mike Mignola and Fiona Staples – both in attendance – had inspired and kindled his love of art. We almost walked right by Mike, the creator of Hellboy, before Squatch noticed the name scrawled above a middle-aged bald man. There was a modest line, so we talked while it wound down. People would drop in, and drop stacks of a few, to sometimes a few dozen, comics they'd wanted signed. Squatch had left his at home, not wanting to “be a dick.” But while we talked, people in the line sometimes nerded out. To that, Mignola had 10% apprehension and 90% delight. Others unzipped special comics holders, then deposited neat stacks in front of him. To that clinical accuracy, he responded with efficient signing. Sometimes he'd ask the gaping fans, “Where should I sign this?”

After the line petered out, Squatch walked up. He couldn't say anything. Mike looked up, now registering something like 80% exhaustion, 20% apprehension. Squatch finally pointed at Mignola's originals, held in a portfolio case not unlike the one holding Squatch's unfinished comic, back in the car. Squatch asked, “Mind if I look through these?”

Mike nodded.

Originals, mostly from Hellboy in Hell, ranged in price from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Mike now looked slightly engaged, as Squatch's face lit up on flipping through pages. Still, the two said nothing. Another fan nuzzled up beside us, and bluntly held something out towards Mike. He pointed, could you sign this here? Mike did so, without speaking. He held out an identical book and said, “Could you make this out to Sally and Frank?” Again, it was signed without words, and the fan vanished without any audible thanks.

Squatch was making sounds of appreciation. As he flipped through originals, I could see the same kind of rough marker work that Squatch used. Mignola's influences on my friend were obvious. Big haphazard strokes, and characters with bulk.

Squatch looked up, fairly mindblown, and flipped Mignola's book to the start. There's a solid beat as they stare at one another. Mike blinks.

“Thanks,” I say.

“Thanks,” says Mike.

“Um, thank you,” says Squatch.

There's another moment of silence, like Squatch might say more. Might talk about how influential Mignola's use of lines and color had been to a teenage Squatch. Might have let the man know that his work had a serious, sincere impact. But while that second drags on to two Mike nods, returning to an earlier tired look. I know that Squatch, who up till recently worked at Subway, had just very nearly ponied up for one of the pricier originals.

Squatch had a similar experience with Fiona Staples, the artist for Saga. Though he's got eight longboxes and a closet full of lovingly-jacketed comics, the eight issues out for Saga are among his favorites. Since he didn't bring them, out of austere avoidance of anything obnoxious, he buys one of the prints featuring Lying Cat and The Will. He finds a twenty in his wallet.

The best Saga cosplay at the Con:
Izabel the dismembered spectral babysitter 

He mumbles something about her making a cool comic.

Her handler – a haggard, ferret-faced man with greasy hair – snatches the cash.

“Thanks,” she says, looking apprehensive at the force of that transaction. But she smiles. “Do you want it personalized at all? What's your name?”

“Uh, Jared. But you don't really have to.”

“Well, here,” she says. I can make out her signature, and his name.

I don't remember any other words passing back or forth. We seem to awkwardly drift from the table.

Squatch is, for those who've never experienced the phenomenon, experiencing a full-blown Nerdgasm. We're walking out to his car, in order to safely deposit his newly signed treasure, and he barely says a word.

At about 6:30 or 7pm, we found a table by the Convention Center's two-story escalator, and gave politically correct, thoughtful appraisals of the show's costumes. Our gender-conscious friend Kim had even joined us, graciously overlooking the show's various wardrobe malfunctions, and lauding the imagination and drive of everyone in costume.

“Jesus Christ, look at that He-Man! That fucker is hot! If you two are allowed to talk about cottage cheese legs and cleavage, then I get to marry that man. I am going to marry the fuck out of him, and tear off that little banana hammock, and we are going to have a lot of hot little babies.”

Comics Alliance has a good photo of
the He-Man in question.

A guy in a I work at NASA shirt, who up till recently seemed ready to stab me, finally stalks off. We see a catwoman with an enormous, abnormally-pert chest.

“Not real at all,” says Kim. “At the very least a serious pushup.”

“So what?” Asks Squatch. “If it does justice to the costume, I mean --”

“So there's no way she's bought that just for the con.”

“We actually saw them earlier,” I say. “Funny story.”

“Oh!” Says Squatch. “Right!”

“So this little kid is tugging at his dad's pant leg, saying 'Daddy I really want to gooo. I'm tiiired.'”

“And he says, eyes firmly drowning in that Catwoman cleavage, 'Hold up just one second, Daddy's gotta take a couple pictures.'”

The female Tony Stark we've dubbed, “Toni Stark” comes up the escalator. Her only departure from street clothes is a bright blue light under a white camisole. Someone chimes in, “eyes off the light, Pal.”

We're all cackling, enjoying jokes at the expense of others, when the comedian Brian Posehn walks by. Lately he's been writing a run of Deadpool, one that Squatch has followed religiously.

“Brian Posehn!” I say. “Time to go.”

Squatch stays seated. So I grab him, pull him up, and Kim follows. A huge crowd piles up around the escalator going down, and we're a good ways behind the man. While we wait, I ask a lethally thin pre-teen in excessive facepaint, “Hey, what are the candy corn horns from?”

Homestuck!” He half shrieks, looking ready either to weep, or to leap at me in uncontrolled rage. It's the most terrified I've been in months, and I'm glad when we're finally get on the escalator going down.

“Dude, I'm not going to say anything to him. I don't want to bother the guy.”

“You love his writing. You have a lot of respect for him.”

“Can't do it, dude. Not if he's as tired as us. What would I even say?”

“Just tell him what you just said. You respect his work.”

Squatch grimaces, and walks over to him while Kim and I stand aside. We both grin at each other. I tell her that the most he's said to any of his heroes here, until now. Squatch walks over to me with his phone.

“Here, just hit the picture button.”

I hit the wrong button, so he has to break from posing with Brian to fix the phone. They're both tired, and their faces momentarily show it, but Squatch hands the phone back to me. Brian, a huge guy, makes a tough pose. Squatch gives a gleeful smile. I snap a couple pictures.

The next day, we spend mostly lost, and wandering. The current artist for The Walking Dead is listed in one place in the ECCC program, but word of mouth puts him across the expo floor, or even at the Image Booth. It was our third time orbiting in the rough location listed on the program, but it was still good. Plenty of crap to make fun of, the occasional, lovingly made costume, or lovingly-made art. But after failing to find this one artist, again, Squatch was just wandering. Since he was shambling into a madly overpopulated part of the convention, one we'd wandered easily half a dozen times already, I diverted us down an emptier lane in Artist's Alley.

We came up next to a booth we'd visited already, for Eric Powell.

Powell's Goon is, for me personally, a profound and inspiring comic. The voice is utterly unique. One of his books in the series, Chinatown, dealt with love and loss in a language I'd needed. It was one of those books you serendipitously pick up at a time when you really need it. I'd later find out that Powell had fought to present Chinatown  in its intended format and style – and had won. It rarely happens in comics; hearing about it made me so, so happy. I'd already picked up a bookmark for The Goon, the last time we were here, but Powell hadn't been there. There was one new face sitting, sketching.

Some promotional art for Chinatown.

“Are you the guy?” Asks Squatch.

“Nope,” he said. Then grinned. “Yeah, it's me.”

“Wow, cool,” said Jared.

He was about to say more words to a favorite creator than he had all weekend.

Jared shared that he'd just been comparing Powell favorably to Rob Liefeld. That while Liefeld's art hadn't changed much, since he'd been a 16-year-old rising star in comics art (something Liefeld himself humorously admits), Powell's had evolved, matured, and then evolved again.

Powell, whose eyes were energetic and friendly, but most of all present, at first grinned.

The tattooed blonde woman sitting next to him gave a good-natured laugh, but threw in that Liefeld had always been an exceptionally nice guy.

Powell chimed in, complimented Liefeld, then started up a conversation with Squatch on making comics. I got the distinct impression that Squatch and Powell – for lack of better analogy – were both tuned to the same frequency. In one trade paperback for The Goon, Powell had outlined his progression from early days in pencils, and then pens. At the time, a few years ago, Squatch hadn't yet read The Goon. But having seen both, Powell's earlier work had reminded me a lot of what Squatch was doing. It was one of the early hooks – that I could get the same kinds of slightly strange stories I might from my friend – if only my friend could have more time away from his job as a Sandwich Artist.

While they talked about Liefeld's technique, technique in general, and The Goon, I was doing the very thing I'd mocked Squatch for all weekend. Face to face with a creator I admired, I said next to nothing. I just, you know, listened. And looked over Squatch's shoulder as he flipped through originals.

Good weekend.

Remember to use the buddy system.


Richard Bartle on Making Virtual Worlds

This is a 2007 talk given by Richard Bartle.

By way of listing out the technologies he needed to know, in order to co-create the first MUD in 1978, this monologue makes convincing points about the really important bits in games. After long minutes about AND gates and compilers, he says, "And I needed a bit of, like, imagination on the top, to create the actual world."

Then, "See what I want, is just to get to the point where all you need is that little bit of imagination on the top."

Video for this used to exist publicly (if you know where it's hiding - let me know!). I thought I'd lost the transcript as well, when a host went down in 2008. I was really happy to find it recently. I've met some of my best friends in MMOs, virtual worlds that may have never existed without Bartle's AND gates, OR gates and compilers. It's really neat to have this snapshot. Thanks again to Richard, for permission to repost his words, and for going to all the trouble in the first place.

Richard Bartle on Building Virtual Worlds
State of Play V: Singapore
I'm glad to see that even at this late stage in the conference there are more people in the audience than there are on the panel.
What we've heard so far, this is a panel about building virtual worlds. And you might have been expecting some kind of technical talk, and you haven't had one. Well, you're gonna get one.
And you're gonna get one as an explanation of why this kind of panel won't be around in ten, fifteen years time. See when I co-wrote the first virtual world, what did I need to know?
Right, well, what I knew to start with was that memory is made of cores. These little torus-shaped pieces of soft iron and they're hung up over this little crosswork of wires with a read wire going through it. I also knew that I could build AND gates and OR gates out of electrical circuits by combining those in a NOT gate, a bit more sophisticated. I could make flip flops. JK flip flops, SR flip flops. You could combine flip flops together to build units which would do half adders, which would do a half the arithmetic of a full adder, which was made up of a several half adders. You could shift registers from side to side. You could also build a register which told you which of the other registers you wanted to use.
And you had a program counter, because you'd have a whole load of memory, and a program counter loads from memory into your central processing unit which has an (fetch?) execute cycle. And that told you what the arithmetic and logic unit which I've just described would do. So I knew that, I also knew that in order to program this you had to type things in pretty well on switches. You had to set some switches. Press the button, switch. Press some more switches, press the button until you'd loaded the memory with just enough so that it could read from a paper tape. Then on the paper tape you put in just enough instructions that it could read from a magnetic tape.
And then from the magnetic tape it could boot an operating system, and then an operating system could then read to a hard drive and write to a hard drive.
From the hard drive it could read all the programs you were going to need, which were things like how to copy a program, a file from one place to another. How to rename, we have programs for all of these things. I also knew that if I wanted to make the program to do anything I would need to write in an assembly language. Which originally would have been written in binary, but now because people had written them in binary we had an assembly language, which was a low level language. Each instruction corresponded to one instruction in the architecture of the hardware.
But even though I could program in an assembly language, I actually wanted to program in a high level language, because it takes a lot of time to program in an assembly language, so we had a compiler. And the way to compile a work we had fifteen, no thirteen different boot steps until, from being written in assembler it could compile itself.
So we had a compiler. BCPL, Basic Computer Programming Language. My favorite language.
In BCPL, plus some assembler, I was able to write my own compiler, and my own database and my own interpreter which is kind of like an operating system for a compiled language. And I did that, and I read from my database a description of what would turn out to be a virtual world. It dropped some assembler, which would be run through an assembly language compiler to create actual executable code.
That would then be loaded into the interpreter, which I had also written. Which would read from a file a database would also hold information about all the players. And then I had a virtual world. And that's what I needed to know.
And I needed a bit of, like, imagination on the top, to create the actual world.
Now, you don't need that nowadays. Nobody goes out and writes a database. They go and buy one or get one for free, there are databases all over. Nobody today writes their own compilers. You don't have to write your own compiler, why would you? They come with lots of documentation. They've been around for years. Nobody writes their own interpreters. What today's people do is they take libraries of software that have already been written and they kind of sew them together. And then they put them as an architecture.
So what we've been hearing here is different architectures for virtual worlds. But none of the people here have gone to the extent of actually writing their own database.
But at the moment, we're only part way along. Part way along where we're going.
Because in ten years time, you won't need any of this. Maybe not ten years time. Maybe fifteen, maybe twenty. Maybe I'll be dead.
Well, I wouldn't know, would I?
See what I want, is just to get to the point where all you need is that little bit of imagination on the top.
Let's say that I want a pagoda inside of a virtual world. Ok, let's say, pagoda, it's like a white thing, it's kind of tall, it's got an odd number of floors and there's little red circles round each floor. Let's say the circles are made of tiles, and the pagoda is made out of white brick and it's got little heart-shaped windows all the way up into the bottom. It's got this nice door with the brass fittings and a little dragon embedded on it.
I want to be able to say, "That." And have a pagoda, "There." That's what I want.
I don't want to have to program all the way from prims, or anything else. I just want to say, "That's what I want, give me it. Where is it?"
We don't have that yet, at the moment we're still on the way.
We're still building, we're still bootstrapping ourselves up; in the same way that the BCPL compiler was written in BCPL. And the BCPL itself was not quite as sophisticated as the final version. And to get to that one you had to write another compiler in a smaller version of BCPL and so on. Until the very smallest version of the compiler you could write in assembler; and then it was all bootstrapped up. We're on a bootstrapping process at the moment.
Virtual worlds have got a long way to go, but we're getting there very quickly.
And in terms of building virtual worlds. The less technology that people need to know, the more people will build virtual worlds. The more people will build them, and the more virtual worlds we'll have. And the virtual worlds we have will be beyond our imaginations at the moment (Richard asides: because there are only 250 of us, or only 10 of us in the room).
But there are millions of people out there, and they've all got their own imaginations. They've got wonderful things that they want to do. All we can do at the moment is to help provide them with the means to do it.
And some people have the ability to create pictures, some of the people have the ability to models or to animate. But eventually, once something's been animated, it doesn't need to be animated more than once. Once a compiler has been written, it doesn't need to be written more than once.
You don't need to know how your internal combustion engine works in order to drive a car.
People won't need to know how these things work, they'll just be able to use their imagination. And this is where we should be, where we will be heading.
This is what you people, half, a quarter my age have to look forward to.
And that's what building virtual worlds is about.
(Paraphrasing Richard: People aren't giving technical talks here, because we've 'bootstrapped' past that point)
And eventually, the aim of virtual worlds is for us not to have a panel like this at all. We'll only be talking about the wonderful marvelous cool things you can do, and how to avoid being sued for doing it.
(Audience question: What keeps you up at night?)
Apart from songbirds, bad opera singers and fierce air conditioning (Neils says: none of which were to be underestimated at the Marina Mandarin), what keeps me awake at night is the worry that people are going to take away my toys. We've got these virtual worlds, and after 25, ehh, 30 years they're finally getting somewhere. They're getting to somewhere which is almost to where we'd want them to be. And I've got this terrible worry that someone's going to take them away.
Because, although virtual world developers are indeed the gods of their worlds, they are not actually gods in the real world. And, sadly, there are people in the real world who've got armies. And they can make you do things.
They do this through lawyers rather than actually throw the army at you. They only throw the army at you if you don't do what the lawyers tell you.
But you can be made to do things, they can switch the power off. They can take anything away.
A few bad court decisions and, ugh, what happened to my toys? You've broke them.
You may have been trying to protect some community from the awful, one-sided EULA. Which, if you then strike it out, nobody ever creates a virtual world, so you've protected the community by removing the community.
You may [become] extinct, in an attempt to protect [your virtual world]. There are many ways that people could break virtual worlds. This is why I come to the State of Play conferences, because this is where much of the thought of how virtual worlds are treated, by the real world, goes on.
On an earlier panel we had the philosophical point raised, which is that virtual worlds are part of the real world. And of course they are, the real world always wins. And of course the players know that the virtual world is part of the real world. They have to try very hard to force themselves to disbelieve that for just long enough that they get a sense of being somewhere else, so that they can treat it as a different place.
If all the sudden the real world comes in and pricks the bubble and says, "Nope, sorry, you're in the real world," they lose what gives them much of their real power.
And that's what keeps me awake. I don't want people to say, "Virtual worlds, they've bled into the real world so much that it's indistinguishable, the real is indistinguishable from the virtual."
Well at times you do actually need the virtual, and that's what worries me.
That, and that air conditioning.

Then -

while teaching those smarter than I, typing in dark corners, and playing entirely too much League of Legends - I did not update you, blog. I will not apologize!