This blog is, ostensibly, to present online the writing and gaming musings of myself. As stated repeatedly, I possess spare material files on my computer where I get these ideas out of my head, and sometimes they provide also the inspiration for blog posts, like the lengthy four-parter lurking in that tag.

Once upon a time, I had a thought. It was prompted by one of my roommates. If it interests you enough to bring to greater fruition (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

My roommate saw online a discussion about warning future people that hazardous materials had been stored in a location. Given that the materials could remain hazardous for ages after the demise of all humanity, the warning would have to communicate to unknown civilizations with unknown standards.

One guess was to set massive durable metal spikes sticking at all angles out of the ground, hopefully communicating that nothing else should be built on the spot. Would this work? Who knew? Surely an entity could misunderstand anything. And then I started thinking . . .


What if we failed to understand the famous standing stones? Well, more than we already do. Imagine an ancient architect being transported to modern day, seeing the tourists pressing eagerly as close as they can, seeing the religious brethren performing ceremonies inside the rings, and recoiling in horror. “You fools! Horizontal repressing stones atop multiple uprising stones! What do you think we buried there?!”

I leave this thought with you.


Fabled Lands: The Serpent King's Domain Kickstarter project image

Following along inexorably from that last post, I and my associates in Megara Entertainment have brought our Kickstarter project to live-ness on the internet. I could have said “to life,” naturally (and grammatically), but granting the project such is the purpose of the funding. The project is “live.” Perhaps backers will bring it to life.

Yet I find myself speaking of contradictions once more: backers have already brought it to life. Whereas our project for The Way of the Tiger was funded in less than 48 hours, our current project has been funded in less than 45 minutes:

This is excellent and will allow us to focus on our main goals, which are to get extra funding to afford the needed art. Any such funding is a challenge when selling books, as discussed already by Dave Morris. Now I am dashing across the internet to talk with everyone, thank everyone, and catch up again with everyone when everyone does something behind my back. Business as usual for Kickstarter.

Fabled Lands: The Serpent King's Domain Kickstarter project image

Readers will have noticed by now that I post about Kickstarter on this blog. Among other things. But all that work with Megara Entertainment on Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories, The Way of the Tiger, and Lone Wolf – The Board Game lends itself to posting. Among other things, they’ve consistently been my only posts with images.

So today we have presented the world with the “soft launch” of our imminent Kickstarter project, Fabled Lands: The Serpent King’s Domain. Yet again we are adapting and expanding a classic gamebook series, and this time it looks like I have the pleasure of working with the entire original team of authors and illustrators.

See this link:

As I wrote over there,

Fabled Lands is a gamebook series, that special sort of solo role-playing where you read a story paragraph, make a decision about what you would like the hero to do next, and turn to some other page to read the results. This series is the first in history to be non-linear: players proceed at will back and forth between books, and each book represents not a story but a region. The story is up to the player to tell.

You can strive to overcome villains and monsters, or spend the whole game as a merchant trader plying the seas. Ordinarily, this sort of description would mean an open-world videogame to tax your computer’s processors; but Fabled Lands is a BOOK ON PAPER.

This I think is noteworthy. It’s in much the same sense as that essay I wrote on gamebooks: playing these games, I found myself struck by the implementation of gaming principles I knew to exist in videogames. I felt the freedom of choice and consequence that comes from walking around an electronic overworld and entering the dungeons I wished. One might ask, then, why I’d play a print Fabled Lands gamebook when I could just play a videogame; I’d have multiple answers, but one, inevitably, would be that I’d play both. Why wouldn’t I want to play all “well-programmed” games? The medium doesn’t change the admiration.

As before, the purpose behind this whole post is to announce how I shall be busy come next month. In fact, I’ve been busy for quite some time.

Though it’s amusing to consider this further too. Just recently I attended the wedding of a friend from the Lesser Known Gods, hinted briefly in my about page and my writing samples page. In speaking with his gaming friends, I was given a new name for all my work on Kickstarter: producer.

Producer? Sounds like I need to look up a job description or two. But yes, I have spent months dividing tasks into logical groups, managing people, maintaining a focus on a goal or vision for a project, raising awareness and funds, and, in the end, writing a lot of reports. If that’s a management position of some sort, then I suppose that explains why I’ve been so busy. Especially when no one here actually reports to me.

But as stated it’s generally been a pleasure. I hope this gaming news is of interest, as with all the others.

This blog has had its share of news about my Kickstarter projects — because I’m in them, this is my blog, and I post about my writing and gaming. As discussed by Dave Morris, it can be very inefficient to fund a publishing project on Kickstarter. This has led me to wonder about other sorts of projects, such as videogames.

Videogames seem to do rather well on that site, particularly older properties from the 80’s and 90’s. Say, Shadowrun. Understandable, given that the people who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s are now the young adults spending money on the internet. These digital projects have the advantage of lower “printing” costs (unless the creators will it otherwise) but still need to create a compelling “updated” version of classic content. For instance, Shadowgate (seems to be a theme here) was not promised as “the original game now on your newfangled computer,” but something dramatically expanded. If you’ve read my About page, you know this is what I’ve done for years.

My most recent non-Kickstarter posts were a game design where I developed a whole RPG world and system. Today I brainstorm a videogame project — not because I’m launching anything on Kickstarter, but because I feel like it.

I choose to renew the Temple of Apshai Trilogy.

This was a game from when I was growing up in the 80’s, an era where game mechanics were changing left and right. Long before “health” was standardized to “hit points” (and long before people forgot that a “hit point” was something you suffered, not something you had), Temple of Apshai had a “wounds percentage” that was influenced by multiple factors. You haggled over prices, and, if you looked closely, your loot heap just might include “a partridge in a pear tree.” The game introduced me to role-played character statistics (strength, constitution, et cetera) as well as to “donjons,” “salves,” “parlaying,” and, for that matter, “parrying.”

It’s surprisingly difficult to find a good link for it, though. The most in-depth pages seem to lack the attractive Commodore 64 graphics. However, beyond the graphics, what’s most relevant here is the text: the game came with a large booklet of role-playing-game-style descriptions of rooms, traps, treasures, and foes. Sometimes dramatic, sometimes comedic. Bringing the game back means a new writing project in addition to a careful design project.

As I’ve argued, a well-designed game explores its elements and mechanics fully. It’s possible to go too far and flood something with “filler,” yes, but there seems to be something in general gaming consciousness that leads people to say “Ugh, this game had such a good idea, but they didn’t do anything with it” or “Wow, they really took that idea and did everything they could.” It may be worthwhile to remember Lewis Carroll again:

“‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'”

What I’d like to do, in this hypothetical world where I have the rights, the artists, and the programmers to create a videogame, is to resurrect Temple of Apshai and explore it fully. Here’s how. Again, if you are interested in anything I post and want to use it somewhere (such as in a tabletop gaming session), just ask me. I like to know where my children are.

Step 1: Identify what the original has and where it’s incomplete

The original trilogy consists of three chapters: Temple of Apshai, Upper Reaches of Apshai, and Curse of Ra. The first contains four levels in a single theme, exploring the abandoned underground depths where once dwelled the followers of Apshai, the insect god. The second has four levels with unique art, each the domain of a character from the game world. The third is another single-themed area like the first, but moving on to an Egyptian theme.

The change to a “real-world” Egyptian theme means some fun content but nonetheless could seem out-of-place. New content should explore both the original themes and further “real-world” ones.

The characters utilized for Upper Reaches of Apshai are an odd mix. The game is known to include the Innkeeper, the basic character who tends to your needs and with whom you haggle for purchases, and three other adventurers: Olias the Dwarf, Lowenthal the Mage, and Benedic the Monk. This is four people, but Upper Reaches presents only three — the fourth is an unknown character named Merlis the Mage, whose home you visit instead of Lowenthal’s.

New content should include Lowenthal’s domain as well as other unique areas.

Your basic character statistics develop over the game, and, in at least one horrifying circumstance, lower: some enemies strike you with “a chill . . . ” and your constitution drops permanently.

New content should round out the possibilities for raising and lowering statistics. I only have limited information on the original’s scheme and would have to research this aspect further.

Step 2: Complete the original and expand it where appropriate

I propose that a Kickstarter project promise first to update the game to a modern engine with faithful graphics. Proving that it works would be essential. The text should appear in-game, certainly, and should also emphasize what is so special about this gaming approach: with text, you can draw attention to different senses. So, for instance, when a chamber has the odor of vanilla, the text would place this in bold. And fans of the original would know why this is alarming.

Then I propose unlocking new content in sequence: three more chapters, perhaps with the first unlocked from the start. This allows for a large amount of content available to gamers who wish to design their own adventures.

Beyond Apshai. A similar chapter to Upper Reaches of Apshai, with four unique areas based on characters within the game world. One is the home of Lowenthal the Mage, the missing classic character. A second is for a new druid character from the subsequent Wrath of Eire. A third is a smaller and more distant temple to the insect god, so some “classic Apshai content” would be present even if the project went no further (though the temple would be abandoned so as to maintain mystery about the doings of the cult). A possible fourth could be another area dedicated to Geb, God of the Earth, the patron of Benedic and his fellow monks. This could be appropriate as Geb is the only other (non-Egyptian) god to be so important in the series. Alternately, the fourth could be Egyptian so as to use said content further.

Wrath of Eire. Similar in principle to Curse of Ra, this chapter is a single-themed realm dedicated to Irish mythology. Or at least as much “Irish” as Curse of Ra is “Egyptian,” so it could have referential, ahistorical, and tongue-in-cheek things like serpent enemies. The prevalence of faery curses makes for excellent opportunities in lowering character statistics: a “horde of wee folk” could “twist your features into a grotesquery,” reducing your ego score (the statistic for influence and willpower). Leprechauns are a given, and of course pots of gold, not to mention emeralds (tongue-in-cheek) and clover.

Return to Apshai. This chapter is a direct continuation of Temple of Apshai. Newly-revealed depths in the cave system that the Apshaians excavated lead to more discoveries and more mysteries. The existing lore says the insects dwelled underground before the Apshaians ever settled here, and also that they may be making incursions elsewhere such as near Benedic’s Monastery — there could be plenty to uncover, both humanoid and not, in a subterranean world only partially carved by hand.

. . . And there is a pitch. Will it ever go online? I’m not involved in wrangling rights and I don’t have a development team, so for today it is but a design exercise. It is one I enjoyed contemplating, though, for the same reasons I enjoyed the other game worlds from my childhood (case in point: Lone Wolf), and for the reason that I love solving puzzles. Design is a long and complicated puzzle, and in the end all the best solutions are the fun ones.

It is interesting and tricky to put so much on Kickstarter. Important to remember is that there are many ways to raise money and they are not all equal. For instance, the biggest Kickstarter videogame projects make millions of dollars, yet they need to warn backers that a million-dollar budget . . . is a small videogame budget. Then there are other sorts of productions, such as the books we in Megara Entertainment keep making. Author Dave Morris has a post on the Fabled Lands blog about Kickstarter and the impractical costs in publishing: to make enough Kickstarter profit off of books to pay everyone, you’ll need tremendous numbers of people to pledge for your books.

Recently, we started collaborating with Greywood Publishing to make Lone Wolf – The Board Game. That’s a domain change from game-in-a-book to game-on-a-board. How it is different? Mostly in that we are collaborating now and therefore communication needs to go through yet more people. The question of expenses is the same: per Dave, great masses of money would go into paying people for months of effort. It is fortunate that Gary Chalk personally wants to make the game, while Jamie Wallis of Greywood personally wants to prepare layout and publish it, and thus neither is a salaried employee. And then there’s me, the one who personally wants to share the excitement of Lone Wolf.

So we succeeded with what should be our bare monetary needs. We’ve said “thank you” all over the place, put together most everything for the final product, and kept posting project updates, not all of which really belong on this blog. The most relevant is my traditional “lessons learned” post.

I’ve posted these before: The Way of the Tiger I copied onto this blog while Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories can be seen on the original Kickstarter. As per usual, I’m writing all this for people who want to go forth with a similar project. Who are those? Anyone for whom Dave’s words are a wake-up call, sure, but I like to think any reasonable reader can see where the principles are universal. Reading posts like these was incredibly helpful as I tried to understand Kickstarter, so I pass it along in case somebody in the future is saved some hassle. The post is online here and I copy it below:

Lessons learned

Let me start with . . .

A recap

I didn’t make up the stuff in those other two essays: almost all of it came from known Kickstarter and/or business principles. And it all applied to Lone Wolf:

Publicity is a full-time job. Kickstarter consumes your life and you will have no time to do anything else.

Finding the right audience means looking both outside and inside Kickstarter. Outside, there are communities dedicated to your areas of interest, and your challenge is to convince them to sign up for Kickstarter to pay you money. Inside, people have already taken the first step, and your job is to find the ones that care about your areas of interest.

All of this outreach requires politeness and care on your part. Many people will ignore you anyway (who wants to listen to ads?), but if you don’t care about the people you contact then they have even less reason to care about you.

Both “big name” recommendations and individual forum posters matter. Both big pledges and small pledges matter.

Early communication (like a soft launch) is important. Regular communication (including responding to feedback) is important.

And the mechanics of Kickstarter still matter: the natural flow from a “beginning rush” to a “final rush”; the attention from user profiles, the “Popular” category, or “Staff Picks” (though we didn’t get into the last one); the importance of a project video; and so on.

What happened this time: finding people

It was difficult and remarkable. First remember that Kickstarter is a publicity campaign, not a storefront. For each project I’ve kept a file of all “promotional material” I’ve posted on forums, e-mails I’ve sent to reviewers, and so on. Some pieces were applied with copy-and-paste to ten or twenty places. Even with that compression, it’s almost a hundred pages (single-spaced). We were featured (sometimes multiple times) on thirty-to-forty forums, blogs, and fellow Kickstarter projects, and an equal number said “sorry, not interested.” And this doesn’t even include Twitter and Facebook.

As I’ve said before, every single time we got a surge in new pledges I could point to somebody who posted about us. It was very predictable and precise. If, say, a new mention meant an extra $500 on the day it went live, then we reached almost 2/3 of our funding goal this way, with lingering effects as future visitors came by to see the posts. (And wow are we grateful: thanks again for spreading the word, everyone.)

Giving them a good welcome

I probably don’t have to tell you that having a professional artist helps in making a page attractive. We also took a lot of feedback from fans during our soft launch to improve the content.

One thing went better than it did in our last two projects: the project video. Kickstarter emphasizes this for making a connection with potential backers. For Arcana Agency, site stats showed only about 15% of people who started watching the video bothered to finish it. That went up to 20% for The Way of the Tiger. At its best, Lone Wolf saw 25% of plays complete, which sure says something.

One thing went worse: communication. At the base I mean internal communication within the team, but of course that hampered communication with you, the readers. Normally, working with Mikaël Louys online (this is Richard S. Hetley, here), we have to deal with a difference in time zones. Anything I needed urgently for The Way of the Tiger would suffer a one-day delay. That’s annoying but okay if you’re planning a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule of posting new material on Kickstarter.

When we started working with Jamie Wallis and Gary Chalk, it got worse. We all have full-time jobs. As noted, Gary has been suffering from fluctuating internet access. Anything urgent faced a two-to-three-day delay, and that just made things difficult. We were saved only by our advance planning (hooray, soft launch) and that fact that half of us were experienced in Kickstarter enough to keep posting anyway. (So, sorry for the delays in communication, and we’re grateful for your patience.)

What they gave in response

Elementary economics tells us that different people have different budgets, and if you sell products or services you’d be wise to offer choice to match. On Kickstarter, that means offering pledge rewards from just a few dollars up into the high reaches: if someone WANTS to pledge $1000, you’d jolly well better be ready for it.

What you kind backers gave to us was unexpected . . . inasmuch as I’ve never seen such a clear demonstration of the principle. The $3000 reward level accounted for around a sixth of total funding. The $50 reward accounted for around a sixth of total backers. The $65 reward accounted for around a sixth of both. The numbers go on and every pledge mattered. What if we’d left out one of those levels? If people couldn’t find something to match their interest (and budget) then we would have earned ourselves a nasty hole in funding.

Today and into the future

How do you think about project success? Unless you’re one of those lucky few who makes a million dollars, you measure “success” as “we made enough to cover our first guess for how much money we’ll need.” That’s what we did and now we can afford the first print run, covering backer rewards and providing stock to sell in a proper storefront in the future.

This lets me make a final point. If you had any doubt, the project and components will go on general sale in 2015. It’s alarming to note how, for all three of our Kickstarter projects, people have asked persistently “will there be any way to buy it after the project is over?” The answer is “of course.” My alarm comes in that some of these people are seasoned Kickstarter backers, and therefore there must be enough other projects where the answer is “no” for them to feel this doubt.

What kind of businessperson engages in a massive and stressful publicity effort for a retail product only to STOP selling the product? Ostensibly, on this site, your product just needs a “kickstart” and then it will live on. For some people this life is defined differently, such as those funding a theater renovation which has a discrete endpoint, but even then they intend to use their efforts to do yet further business in the future (in this example, doing productions in the theater).

We hope Lone Wolf will live on now that you’ve “kickstarted” it, that the remaining stock will find good homes in 2015, and that the game will be popular and profitable enough that all the expansions we’d started detailing in stretch goals (but didn’t yet reach) can be produced someday. That’s the plan.

So thank you, again, for helping make it all work thus far.

A bit of reading material came out of the Lone Wolf – The Board Game Kickstarter project. Actually, I can be more precise: a lot of material came out, and I can hope that people read a word or two. Back when we did Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories, I observed that we on the team wrote more words in promo than are in the book we were trying to sell.

So, yes, I have a “lessons learned” post just like that last one from The Way of the Tiger, but before that I have an extra essay. This came when I tried to find something to say about the project to an unfamiliar audience. It’s long-since been posted online. And . . . I liked it. This is the sort of essay I want on my blog.

So here you go:

I love a good game. It could be anything. Clever little custom-dice game? Awesome. Social game with no props whatsoever? Cool.

Same goes for a good book or a good story. Who cares how many style buzzwords it has? Is it any good? Then it’s a good game, book, or story, and I’m glad I had a chance to meet it.

Which is why I was glad to be raised by gamebooks. You know, those Choose Your Own Adventure books where you flip back and forth between different pages based on where you want the plot to go? “Choose Your Own Adventure” is a brand name, and maybe you’ve heard more about Fighting Fantasy if you grew up in Europe. But hopefully, if you know about gamebooks at all, you’ve heard of Lone Wolf.

The Lone Wolf gamebooks, more than anything else, taught me how fantasy was supposed to be. Thanks to them I still think “armour” should be spelled with a “u” despite a lack of recent and personal British ancestry. In those books, heroes weren’t championed by “fighters” and “magic-users” — no, they called on monks and border rangers. There was a shocking minimum of green dragons, green-skinned goblins, and trolls with green blood that regenerated for no clear reason — instead there were shapeshifters, dark knights, and ships of drowned sailors that rose in undeath.

When I was a kid, I played gamebooks on the same days that I would play videogames. Now, why play an “interactive book,” filled with mechanisms and hacks to pretend it had the complexity of a computer, when I could play a game on the computer? Oh, I don’t know: maybe I just said I played both. Maybe you just read that sentence a moment ago.

“Why are you playing that?” Because if it’s good then it doesn’t matter how flashy it is. You enjoy it on its own terms.

It’s just like the specific microcosm of videogames. Computer technology advances, and each year there are ads for “the latest in cutting edge graphics!!!” One day we passed the threshold where default technology could power 3-D games, not just sprite-based games, and it’s only gone up from there. But if that’s true, then why are there any 2-D games still in existence? Why would Bioshock come out with its stunning 3-D world in 2007, and Aquaria come out in 2-D at the end of that same year?

Oh, I don’t know: maybe drop-dead gorgeous 2-D art is still drop-dead gorgeous, and Aquaria is still a “good game” just as Bioshock is. The invention of the car has not halted the advancement of the bicycle.

So to this day I enjoy a good gamebook, because, by definition, they’re “the good ones.” That’s why I and my buddies have been doing contemporary gamebook projects. Then, a few months ago, I heard chatter coming through about something different: Lone Wolf in a board game. A wargame, in fact, played on a board.

Hey, really? I like Warhammer 40,000. Is this like that? And made from Lone Wolf?

Eventually I got to playtest their print-and-play scenario. I was amazed. Here on my tabletop was a simulation of the game world I knew. And it played faster than any game of Warhammer 40k! Once I knew the rules, I was plowing (excuse me, “ploughing”) through a battle just as I’d read a book.

It felt just like my childhood. Sure, the setup was more “traditional” for a fantasy realm, involving the grey-skinned “Giaks” of Lone Wolf, who bear certain parallels to green-skinned “goblins.” Nevertheless I loved fighting Giaks, and I’d seen the art that said one day there might come Drakkarim (dark knights) and maybe even Helghast (undead shapeshifters).

And moreso, it was all drawn in 2-D art on stand-up figures!

Oh, I see where this is going. Oldstyle art for an oldstyle game world, right? Yup, that’s something I love. But when we started sharing this project online, we realized we would bump into the age-old question: “Why are you playing that?”

Of course, gaming technology advances, and one day we passed the threshold where gamers expected games to have 3-D miniatures by default. Well, sure, I’ve played Warhammer 40,000 — maybe even on the same day that I played a gamebook or a videogame. But what’s special here was that Gary Chalk, the artist who had brought life to the pages of Lone Wolf during my childhood — and, for that matter, to Redwall, and to HeroQuest, and to many other worlds that were richer for it — had spent 30 years becoming an even better artist. Bioshock . . . meet Aquaria. (Psst: my touchscreen tablet plays Aquaria. Think it would take Bioshock?)

I love a good game. Same goes for a good book or a good story. And the same goes for a good piece of art. It does not matter that I could buy some plastic miniatures from a gaming store downtown: there is a beauty to the hand-drawn art of someone who loves what he does. If it’s good, then it doesn’t matter if it meets the expectations . . . for some other type of art. You enjoy it on its own terms.

We are now trying to fund Lone Wolf – The Board Game via Kickstarter [ed.: obviously we’re done now] on the basis of a good game design at its core, a history of good gamebooks behind it, and a good artist at its helm. Think anybody will play it?

So far, looks like there are a few takers. And you’re welcome at my table when you’re in town.

Lone Wolf - The Board Game Kickstarter project image

Readers should be familiar with the routine. I announced recently that I and my associates in Megara Entertainment are deep in the guts of yet another Kickstarter project, this time the adaptation of the classic gamebook series Lone Wolf to a board game version. There was a little twist: this wasn’t an adaptation we were going to make. In fact, no one was going to make it in the future tense: the designer and artist had already created it 30 years ago when the gamebook series was still new.

As such, I wasn’t to be much of a writer or game designer this time around (at least in name), and instead editor and “Kickstarter manager.” I can tell you, “editing” and “managing” this Kickstarter page has meant a lot of writing and design. And image manipulation.

But at long last the project went live today:

It’s ploughing full speed ahead. And I have even more permission than usual to spell the word “ploughing” given how the Lone Wolf series was responsible for most of my love of British spelling in the first place. For those who still don’t know the subject matter, I’ll copy my blurb:

Now on Kickstarter: the first tabletop wargame/board game to be based on the classic gamebook series from the 1980’s. Lone Wolf is the story of the last of the Kai Lords, warrior monks who defend the land of Sommerlund against the Darklords and their minions. It is designed wholly by Gary Chalk, illustrator of Redwall, HeroQuest, and many other beloved worlds. Gary has 40 years of experience in wargaming, and backers will be pleased by how quickly it plays while still being a detailed simulation of the game world. Interested readers can see for themselves with a FREE downloadable print-and-play scenario and the beta rulebook, and can back the project through December 5.

There was a massive overhaul in response to soft launch feedback, and of course I personally care about the project anyway, so I would encourage any and all readers to visit the page and see what we’re doing. That’s Lone Wolf – The Board Game. You know where to find us.

(A concluding note: some of you may have detected a subtle shift in the header image between the last post and this one. Some of you may know something has changed, but be unable to point to it with certainty. That’s okay. Some of you didn’t revise the borders on every single project image over and over again for several hours.)

Lone Wolf box cover

Once again have we reached that special time of year, the time I rally to the Recettear-ian cry of “capitalism, ho!” and post directly on this blog about my work for pay. If you’re a reader, you’ve surely encountered my work for Megara Entertainment. We’ve done Kickstarter projects for our original gamebook Arcana Agency: The Thief of Memories and the eight-gamebook revival-and-expansion of The Way of the Tiger, where for both of which I managed the campaign and edited the text. My local website pages (About, et cetera) explain we are on a general gamebook theme, which is fine by me since I love the written word.

Yesterday marked the “soft launch” of our next Kickstarter project, coming in November: an adaptation of a classic gamebook to a new format, Lone Wolf – The Board Game.

See this link:

As I wrote over there,

you are Lone Wolf, the last of the Kai Lords. Or perhaps you are Prince Pelathar, heir to the throne of Sommerlund. Or maybe you are the infamous Giak warrior Kootak, sent by the Darklords to raze the land. Now you can be all of these . . . on your tabletop.

I hope you appreciate the advertisement.

The preview page explains the project fairly well, and there’s no sense in me gushing like I’m doing an infomercial on my own personal blog, so I will leave it at that.

I’ll comment, instead, on “what it all means.” I’ve posted multiple times now about the lessons learned from running these: here’s one and then here’s another (with a copy on this self-same blog here). To be more accurate, half the content of those posts is longstanding knowledge held by anyone in advertizing in general or Kickstarter in specific. The rest is surprised observations about the power of backer perception: I knew it was important, but who knew it was several-hundred-dollars-per-person important on a website where the most common pledge is $25?

Well, this time we’re trying to run a campaign using those same principles of community and word-of-mouth well in advance of the launch date, and hopefully there will be interest in our less-expensive items. Just like last time, the artwork alone is worth most any price: that box cover at the top of this post is just one example of the brilliance of the creator and illustrator, Gary Chalk. I’m thrilled to be able to work in such a great game world and with such creative people.

I’m also thrilled about the other part of “what it all means”: a project with a more discrete ending. Another lesson I learned from The Way of the Tiger is that, yes, eight books will take you nearly a year to edit. For Lone Wolf, I will be editing the rulebook and helping further with development as needed.

Of course, Kickstarter will attempt to consume my life during the month of November. Therefore, just as with that last warning I gave a year ago, this is formal notice about how my “life” shall be “consumed” come that time. I hope such gaming news is of interest.

Variety is – Part II

August 9, 2014

As I explained, variety is the fundamental substrate of human experience. There is nothing to discuss if there is no variety. Adding the right amount of variety and “visual interest” to a piece of art can make it better. If videogames are art (a part of culture), surely variety has some sort of role in game design.

For today, I had planned to describe its importance across a sample of games, but then wound up with a post mostly about Thief. I’m not talking about Thief‘s more recently-released reboot of the series; no, I’m talking about the original games that left such an impression on gamers that they continue to rank highly in “best of all time” lists, and prompted the recent reboot. The original Thief, and then Thief II, are excellent examples.

But let me start with two others. One day I was interested to see gamers comparing Hellgate: London and Diablo II. The Diablo series made an impact on gaming history, and the first sequel arguably improved on many aspects of the original. When Hellgate: London was presented, it was as an amazing new game from some of the original Diablo creators. Surely it should have been a competitor or even replacement for Diablo II. Why wasn’t it?

The comparison looked to variety, and it’s sinister counterpart “boredom.” In Hellgate: London everything was gray. Gray concrete, gray pavement. Travel from one place to another and you hardly could tell anything had happened. But in Diablo II there was always something of interest. Across the four regions of the game you went from green and brown, to brilliant yellow, to dark green, blue, and gray, to brilliant red and black. Even if you didn’t play the game and simply saw it on someone else’s computer screen, things were always changing.

So in that light let me talk about Thief and Thief II. (Fan site here.)

When it was being developed and released, the original Thief offered two demos, both of which allowing you to do a little housebreaking. My long-term gaming consultant, my brother, played these with me and in the end we knew we wanted the full version. Then we got it and I, for one, was stunned: every single level introduced something new, sometimes drastically new, extending far beyond housebreaking.

My brother and I came to divide it into “thievery” levels, with normal housebreaking, and “Indiana Jones-style” levels, where you found yourself leaping around and mantling surfaces in a 3-D dungeon avoiding traps and nightmares. So, taking just the first four levels, there came “thievery / Indiana Jones / Indiana Jones / thievery” with each teaching the player new game mechanics. This is important: a progression of content matters not just for the sake of interest, but for player learning. The beloved game Portal is studied — yes, studied — for its ability to guide the player through learning tasks in an engaging and enjoyable way, introducing new content at the right speed and with the right tools for understanding.

Even when Thief got back to “normal thievery” in level 4, it struck a high point of artistry with a complex and memorable cityscape — that is, variety in sights, sounds, and setup. (And if you really want variety, I haven’t even mentioned the Escher level yet.) I adored all of this and I hold up Thief as the prime example of variety in a videogame.

Enough so that it could be too much. Note that levels 1 and 4 as I just described . . . were the demo levels. Between the two in the full version is a system shock (mildly-punful joke intended) of dungeon-diving. My brother observed it’s a good thing he played the demos first, as the knowledge that “more normal thievery levels are coming” is the only thing that got him through having to completely recalibrate his expectations for 2 and 3. Nowhere in all the advertisement for Thief did the developers prepare the audience for such variety.

Still, I loved it. When a demo for Thief II came available almost immediately afterward, I played that too. I personally wasn’t impressed by the new mechanics so I didn’t push to play the full version. But then I came to see people listing Thief II, not Thief, as their pick for “best of all time.” An endorsement by Sir Terry Pratchett of all people (a fellow who enjoys playing videogames while writing) finally compelled me to try Thief II.

Now . . .

I could dive into the level design in Thief II. An entire level of picking up tiny coins two by two? Waste of the player’s time.

But I was struck by something else: the developers eliminated variety. Instead of engaging in “normal thievery” and “Indiana Jones” in alternation, you go from levels 1 through 8 robbing from the same human guards in the same geometric buildings over and over again, with a little variation as the Mechanists increase in prominence. Any monsters are just for flavor, entire mechanics (“holy water”) are absent, and even new mechanics (“secrets”) are largely ignored. Despite the standard fantasy concept of “trapped treasures,” for almost the entire game you need not worry about traps. You almost never mantle a wall or climb a rope. You almost never see magic. You never see the light of the sun, period.

Even as Thief II attempted to mimic the original with an explorable “cityscape,” the streets had none of the variety. Buildings were all the same color and architecture, regions made all the same sounds.

At the start of this essay, I discussed the “visual interest” that the successful Diablo II has while the struggling Hellgate: London does not. Doesn’t this mean that Thief II, by visuals alone, should have been a flop?

It would seem that “breaking into houses and beating up on human guards” itself scratched an itch. The popularity of Thief with Actual Killing (I mean, Assassin’s Creed) makes it obvious that people will buy such games anyway, and so variety isn’t everything. But even so, I’ve kept shaking my head and wondering about Thief II: what do people like so much?

Well, I’ve spoken with people on that — people like Sir Terry Pratchett. At the 2009 North American Discworld Convention, he discussed what Thief games give us: an immersive experience. A sensation of being in a living world, where you can look out over the city and watch the people going about their evening. As such, he and his friends hold up one level as the prime example: all Thief II players will immediately recognize level 10, the “Angelwatch” level, as the one where you cross the roofs of the vibrant city and feel life around you. This isn’t the low-variety “cityscape” I mentioned above: Angelwatch is the cityscape concept done correctly.

Okay, follow me here:

Angelwatch was the demo level released shortly after the original Thief. Full of buildings with vastly different colors and architecture. Spread with different types of humans and peppered with different monsters; not for flavor, but where they belong. As far as I could tell, it was designed when the creators were still using the principles from the original Thief, and as such exhibited more variety than any other level in Thief II.

“And so variety isn’t everything,” because apparently people-who-aren’t-me think that Thief II surpassed the original. But what people remember about it isn’t the boring picking-up-two-coins-at-a-time level: it’s the living city level, imbuing the whole experience with a vibrance it would lack otherwise.

Isn’t it funny how variety improves even the “best of all time”? Thus, yes, variety has a valuable role in the storytelling and artistry of modern games, just as it does in any other aspect of life. A lesson to remember.

Variety is – Part I

July 27, 2014

Let us take a moment to appreciate that the URL for this post shall forever be “Variety is Part I,” no dividing punctuation.

Variety is more than “the very spice of life” (per William Cowper). Variety is the fundamental substrate of human experience. And, from there, it should come as no surprise that variety in art style or movie visuals or videogame content is important for “spice.”

So let me give you a “generalization alert” here: I’m about to draw parallels between things that people already know. In this case, I’m comparing storytelling and art to the basic human experience. Can you handle such mind-boggling generalizations?

Consider vision science, i.e., sensation and perception, i.e., that part of psychology concerned with how your visual system works (among other senses, depending on focus). It’s not enough to ask “How do we see things?” because the very question makes an assumption: that “things” are what we see. It’s more accurate to say we derive the existence of “things” after more basic calculations. At the most basic level . . . we are change detectors.

Change is information. Turn your screen black for a moment and look at your blurry reflection. If you needed to summarize what you saw, how would you do it? State “There’s an inch of horizontal forehead, then two more inches, then another two-and-a-half”? No, that’s a waste of breath. More effective is to note “Here’s a line; on one side of the line it’s my skin color, while on the other side it’s my hair color,” and suddenly both hair and forehead are understood. Pick another line and you get the edge of an eye, for instance.

It is these edges, these changes from one state to another, that define what we see. Conveniently, basic eye anatomy is designed to detect edges. Look it up online or take my sensation and perception class if you need more explanation: it’s a fact of the eye that we seek and emphasize change. Not just change across space but also change across time, as, of course, the motion of an object is also part of perceiving the “thing.”

Now consider the people who take advantage of the powers of vision: artists. I enjoy reading webcomics, and as I’ve taken my daily fill I’ve heard artists using the phrase “visual interest.” For all I know, it’s official art terminology as taught in schools — for all I know, it’s an arbitrary yet convenient phrase picked out of linguistics.

What does it mean? I don’t know, but it’s admired in places like Calvin & Hobbes: the comics are “interesting” because the characters don’t just stand around and talk. Not only are Calvin and Hobbes off dashing down a hill when it’s relevant to the story, but they’re walking along logs and clambering over rocks when it has nothing to do with the matter. Something happens: poses vary, camera angles vary, scenes vary, everything varies; especially in this comic, famous for varying basic panel format not to mention content.

Thus does the webcomic artist, say, speak of how a character design could use another detail here or there for visual interest, but people in many domains use this same idea. I remember stepping into a college dorm and hearing the phrase “you need to put posters on the wall or something” over and over again. The posters themselves didn’t have to be good, and, in some rooms, wow were they not; but people seemed to expect something in the blank space, here and later in life. Your porch looks better with a potted plant; the walls look better with a painting; the floor looks better with a rug; something to “break up” the flat expanse. To form an edge and make a change, else it’s all the same everywhere and therefore, by definition, nondescript.

It seems variety is just to be expected in art as in life. What about in videogames? Next time I will discuss it in game design using a few examples — with level of interest to be varied.