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While I was in London, enjoying the freakishly good weather and running up a catastrophic bill on books, CDs and DVDs, the Asshats Anonymous struck again and told me in no uncertain terms that NOMAD was just a rehash of Metamorphosis Alpha, a very, very, very ancient game that 99% of roleplayers alive today have never heard about. I am royally pissed and the whole projektihautomo in majatalo.org can burn in Hell for all I care. I originally planned this entry to be an explosion of rage.
However, my Holy War was cut short by a Motörhead concert in Hammersmith Apollo yesterday and I haven't been able to whip myself back into a frenzy since then. Motörhead were just too good and the primary warm-up bad The Damned sucked just too much. The event planners must have been fucking morons; they had both Girlschool and Motörhead on the list already! Girlschool was great for building up the atmosphere but then an hour of The Damned almost made me fall asleep (I think my girlfriend nodded off towards the end of their set). I don't think any other band than Motörhead could have salvaged the gig after that. As you can see, The Damned stole much of the fire and brimstone I had in store for this entry.
So let's be constructive instead. My two traditional media for debating my projects are the #praedor IRC-channel and this blog. That's the way I like it. However, I can't accuse the forum for being entirely useless, even if the same two observations might have come up on #praedor or during the writing. One such observation is the idea of trying to make a very laptop-friendly PDF-document, basically a powerpoint-style presentation that can also be printed. Usually pdf-publications are electronic facsimilies of traditional printed works and thus hostile to small and wide displays. I have traditionally been hostile to the idea of prioritizing the digital media but for some reason it has begun to appeal to me now.
(side note: Sybreed is garbage - bad purchase)
Another observation is that NOMAD has too much content for a free pdf-release. The point of games like Mobsters is Arcade Roleplaying, or "ready-to-play" if you're speaking fluent Tampere. NOMAD might have merit (beyond being a fucking Metamorphosis Alpha clone) but it can't be played without a lengthy exposition on the setting and the circumstances. I was wrestling with this issue already before the Asshat Assault, so shelving the concept is not quite as dramatic as it might first seem.
(side note: "Dominator" by UDO is better than the Sybreed crap)
Since then there have been a few calls for me to change my mind, some more serious than others. Here is a tip for influencing Burger Games production policies: Be A Collaborator. I can't draw for shit so if you are an illustrator in one of my projects, you carry a Big Stick. However, while I am both moved and re-inspired (inspiration is a contagious disease) by the NOMAD illustrator's appeal for reviving the project, it does not solve the underlying problem. If we make a pdf-minigame, it will either have to be about something else and thus more easy to swallow, or else the NOMAD RPG has to be made into something bigger and more ambitious. And I still haven't decided what the primary focus should be. Even #praedor has split into two camps over it.
(end note: "Babylon" by WASP delivers! It is a crying shame that WASP is such a marginal band these days. I think they are much better now than they ever were in the 80's!)
Looks like I am putting an overload of positive to counter the absolutely fucking miserable weather outside. For those unfamiliar with the Finnish seasons, we are in the Black Box right now and it hurts to look out of the window. The few hours of daylight we get are gloomy as hell because of a thick cloud cover and when it gets dark, it gets really dark because there is not even snow on the ground. If it wasn't for the streetlights and other orange-and-piss-coloured shit it would be pitch black 20 hours a day. Fall is kind of romantic when it starts but I really the hate the Black Box and Christmas is not enough to make me feel better.
Luckily, there are still places where sun is shining and waters are turquoise. A few weeks ago I picked up a freshly translated manga album "Black Lagoon vol 1." from my local grocery store because it kind of reminded me of Mobsters 2.0. I read it, liked it and got my hands on an anime series made out of it. And now I am a big fan. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the series has since ended because the Nips have the good sense not to draw things out to eternity. In return, what is out there makes a for a compelling story from start to finish. Black Lagoon is mature anime, drawn in a distinctly adult style and any pretensions to Kawaii are actually used in the context of horror and splatter scenes. The cast features your typical array of manga stereotypes but even the vaunted GitS: Stand Alone Complex can't match Black Lagoon in the way these cardboard cut-outs are filled out with history, personality and more often than not quite a bit of tragedy. The combat scenes are excellent if also a bit video-gamish. You can clearly tell who the major characters are by the way they dodge bullets when circle strafing their foes while redshirts get blown away like in a replay of the Commando end scene.
The lead character, and also the audience persona, in the series is "Rock", originally your typical timid Japanese sarariman, who gets in trouble with modern-day pirates in the South China Sea and is very pointedly abandoned to his expectedly gloomy fate by his superiors. In the Japanese work culture this is no less dramatic than being drowned by your own parents. He makes it and decides to stay with the pirates, becoming our window into an imaginary (but yet very compelling, sordid and believably callous) version of the East Asian Underworld. And while Rock stands in the twilight between light and dark and stares into the night for us, the female protagonist Revy, whom I detested at first and loved after a few more episodes, develops into the eyes that darkness uses to stare back at him. And us, especially towards the end. There are no heroes here. All the supernaturally skilled gunslingers have paid a terrible price to become what they are. When it comes to character development, Black Lagoon is probably the best anime I've ever seen.
And it is beautiful. Once I get past of the stupid generic metal in the titles, the soundtrack plucks at the strings of my soul. The clean lines and spartan shading actually look a bit like concept art for some videogame. And it works much better than any attempt at photorealism ever could. While many of the usual problems with anime depiction of females are there, they never really go overboard with it. It is a delicate balance and again, something that even my beloved GitS S.A.C royally fucks up.
Black Lagoon is not very famous, or at least I had never heard of it before. Maybe the reasons why I like it ensured that it never made much of a splash among the usual anime crowd (or maybe it did and I am just talking out of my ass). Between Rock's decision to cut himself loose from the corporate hamster wheel and the lawless, tropical metropolis of Roanoke, it delves deep into the concept of a modern adventurer and living outside the normal society; both themes I love to explore in my own roleplaying games. The tropical setting, jungles, boats and the blue sea also give it a sprinkling of pulp adventure charm; again one of my favourite settings.
All in all, Black Lagoon was time and money well spent and I look forward to revisiting Roanoke in the future.
In other news, NOMAD.
Reading the majatalo.org forum thread on the subject it seems that some crazy people are actually roleplaying using laptops rather than rulebooks. Since NOMAD is going to be free, I can experiment with crazy stuff like making a product that is primarily a web book. Laptops typically have widescreen displays so the whole thing could be made in wide A4, just like the slides in a powerpoint presentation. Also, one of my tricks is to write things in easily viewed blocks (stuff A is on the open pages, stuff B begins when you turn a page). NOMAD is a smaller game, so writing things out in page-sized blocks would certainly make sense. It also enables much larger pictures, if my artist agrees to draw some. At least rudimentary schematics of the ship, or maybe just an outside view with pointers, have been on the audience wishlist. I'll make the pages with Open Office Impress; it is something I know how to use and I can trust the fucking PDF conversion to actually work.
On the negative side, I am still unsure about the player character concept. The original concept draft relied heavily on this "awakened and superior" theme, where the players were kind of demigods compared to the Nations. While my fiction of characters waking up to strange sounds and sights have been popular, I am just not convinced the concept as a whole is the right choice. The natural alternative would be to have the adventurers come from a variety of Nation and Outcast backgrounds. Forced together by circumstances and held together by friendship and common goals, they explore the ship (rather than knowing it beforehand because of training and data implants), extract cybertek from frozen corpses and have it implanted on themselves by risky and dubious measures (rather than having state of the art systems in place since Earth) and outwit Kroy into doing things for them rather than negotiating or exchanging favours, services or goods. It would emphasize the post-holocaust theme and help bring out the rich and varied cultures found within the world of NOMAD. It is just not as popular among the old fans of the idea.
Oh well. I am going to London tomorrow so all decisions can be postponed by a week.
Heroin is an enriched semi-synthetic drug derived from opium. I've never tried it and have seen and read enough to know that I never will. Actually, the only two things that could be described as drugs that I've done are morphine while in a hospital and space cake (chocolate cake laced with Cannabis oil) while visiting Amsterdam. But that is beside the point.
Gamer Heroin is something I am well familiar with. It varies wildly in composition and dosage but the common denominator for all varieties is that they have an addiction factor strong enough to screw things up beyond the scope of the game itself. It does not take much, really: something that screws up your sleep cycle will eventually end up wreaking havoc on work, social life and overall well-being. Today, the phenomenon is most familiar to the media from a handful of World of Warcraft addicts dragged off into therapy and some suicides and murders over virtual theft.
I've yet to commit a crime but I've had my run-ins with Gamer Heroin on various occasions. Fortunately none of the addictions have been permanent but they sure are a pain in the butt while they last. It is usually also a sign of a very good game so the risk of relapse after kicking the addiction for some months is fairly high. From the top of my head, the games that have been Gamer Heroin to me include but are not limited to the following, in no particular order:
Jesus Christ On A Bicycle! What were they thinking, releasing this game on unsuspecting masses at 15,90 euros in Gamersgate and elsewhere? That is like having a yard sale of Cocaine next door to the Oscar gala. Torchlight is a Diablo-style dungeon romping game and made largely by the same people as the original Diablo. It is an angled-view 3D game with point and and click controls, friendly cartoonish graphics (reminds me of WoW, actually), three character classes with three talent trees each, an auto-generating level system, the best implementation of a pet in any game anywhere ever in the whole universe and Diablo-style loot up the ass. The setting is a kind of fantasy/steampunk mixture that seems to be in vogue these days but you don't really care because you'll be scouring the dungeons beneath the town of Torchlight all the time anyway.
Although the format supports it very well, there is no multiplayer of any kind. Strange huh? Well, here comes the big surprise: Torchlight is actually a stand-alone advert for the developers' upcoming MMORPG which is still a couple of years away. The developers don't say it in the game but they do wave it around in all the developer interviews and games media. Ordinarily I would call productizing your prototype as a stand-alone game while the development on the main product is still underway a cheap shot but this time I have to forgive them: Torchlight is just so damn good. I am getting so much more than my money's worth out of Torchlight that by the time time the MMO comes out I will be opening three paid accounts just to pay off my moral debt.
Torchlight is to Diablo 1 what heroin is to morphine; a high-powered distillate and derivative. In the long run I think it loses to Diablo 2 because of the lack of setting but we are not there yet and if the developers start releasing setting-related teasers or DLC the whole issue becomes muddy. Also, Torchlight fixes some of the design issues that plagued both of the original Diablos and it really is a much better game than Borderlands (something dies inside me every time I think about this and not just because of the higher price tag). Torchlight is simply the best Diablo-like to have come out after the real thing (D2). Given the number of full-priced, bump-mapped and hyped-up premium titles that have tried and failed to do the same over the years, it boosts my hopes for the future of Indie game development in general. It also makes some other people in the industry look rather stupid.
Among the issues fixed with Torchlight, the first and foremost the more fluid character classes. Although stereotypic, they only really affects the starting stats and skill trees and I don't think I have run into any class-specific loot so far. Your hulking Destroyer can easily double as a powerful mage if you spare a few points for the Magic attribute. Your weedy little Alchemist can wield the biggest axe in the whole county after a few levels of Strength-intensive training. Unlike in most CRPGs, diversification does not feel like it is really hindering your progress in any way and as a side bonus (which I think is actually a fucking huge improvement over the otherwise awesome Diablo 2) there is little or no unusable loot. Sure, the item might be crap or you might lack an attribute point here or there but there are no class or talent-based restrictions.
There is an MMO-style quick key grid for spells and items; again a vast improvement of the stupid quickbelt in D2 that was only good for holding your potions. You can have two weapons layouts. My lady switches back and forth between a fucking Tesla cannon and a pair of fast-firing pistols for small stuff. The right mouse button is mapped to a big-ass fireball with damage based on your primary weapon, so using it while wielding the cannon feels very erotic. Gem slots, so painfully rare in the original, are now commonplace enabling some expert tinkering with the items. You can craft new gems out of two lesser gems and not three, which makes it worthwhile to carry the bloody things around. Town scrolls seem to grow on trees and every few levels or so there is a permanent teleport back to the town. You can also run into vendors in the underground and offload your crap to them, which is a bit confusing but hey, it is a game. Then there is the town enchanter and enchantment shrines down in the mines that have a chance of adding a random magic benefit to anything you put into them. With so many new bonuses it looks like I will be hanging on to my Tesla Cannon for a while.
Then you have pet. Either a wolf-like dog or a lynx-like cat. And it is a brilliant thing to have. It moves independently around you, attacks enemies and has an inventory off its own that effectively doubles your space. And then comes the ingenious stuff: your pet levels up with you but it can also wear one amulet and two rings, giving it all sorts of powers. You can also teach spells to it by dragging a spell scroll you've found into one or two slots. You don't have any control on when or where it will use them but trust me, having those extra ice bolts clear out small fry in boss fights is very useful. You can fish in some parts of the dungeon and turn your pet into a local monster with all the related abilities. As a sugar on top, you can send your pet to the town to sell off its inventory. I shit you not. Sure, you'lle lose the benefit of having the pet around for a while but you don't have to drag your bones to the town every five minutes or leave so many valuable goodies on the ground just because you can't be arsed anymore.
In truth, there is stuff to complain about as well. The 3D engine works like a charm most of the time but sometimes it has its own ideas on enemy positions and targeting clicks don't register. The view works surprisingly well for not being rotating but sometimes loot might be obscured by walls (gold is picked up automatically by walking over it but items are not). I hope there is a hot key for "collect everything within reach but I haven't found it yet. The auto-generated dungeons are repetitive despite being varied and although the theme changes every now and then, having some outside areas would not hurt. Of course, repetition and grind is part of the format so maybe I shouldn't complain. There is a story and there are quests to be had but they all boil down to "kill X" or "find Y", which happens by default anway so I rarely bother to read the texts anymore as I accept them. And while Torchlight has WoW-style cartoony graphical look and feel (which I like to an unhealthy extent), their attempt at mixing of humour and fantasy epic does not work nearly as well. As a result the immersion hook is weak. If they really are making an MMO out of this, they have to do better.
Still, I just need one more level. Just one. Just this one, okay? Look, the last 2000 XP, then I'll call it a day. Just a few minutes more. I promise.
We've just created our first Rogue Trader character for my girlfriend and By the Light of the Emperor, it seems that chaos has already won. This is definitely one of the most wonky game systems I've ever come across and the way it lacks any intuitive or even meaningful reference point for "good" and "bad" skill levels is unbelievable. Also the game apparently can't make up its mind about its power level. Our character will most likely lead the crew of 30,000 people from one end of the galaxy to another but he can't really do anything. Or anything well, that is. The game makes absolutely no concession to roleplaying whatsoever and even though I am probably treating skills much like abilities in STALKER (if you have it, you can do it), when the push comes to the shove the usual +10 bonus to a base stat average of 35 against a roll of 1D100 seems... petty.
Character creation chapters have been organized by Tzeench. I think they have also been written by somebody who's been paid a cent per word. Not only do you have to do a lot of jumping back and forth but you also have to fish out the important details from the freaking massive wall of text on every page. Skill names and such have not been highlighted in any way. On the plus side, the concept and methods are just as charming as on the first time. The lifepath systems from Homeworld to Motivation feels incredibly alive and relevant. Or would, if this was a Flow game or the effects on game stats would be measurable. The game has the nerve to claim the bonuses at character creation are worth 4500 XP right from the start. It sure as hell doesn't feel like it and the 500 XP you can then spend on your initial Rank 1 skills feel like an insult.
We are going to play this. Oh yes, we are going to play this game. But Fantasy Flight Games is doing its best to stop me. The rulebook page format is something exotic and naturally the character sheets are sized accordingly. As a sugar on top the PDF file available on their homepage crashes the printer half-way through the printing, probably because it is a two-page document with pages listed as pages 1 and 2 but numbered at 388 and 389. I am confused and the printer even more so. And if it had printed out the stupid thing, it would have been shrunk to two thirds of its original size because of fitting that 10 megabyte image on an A4. Truly, the state of the Empire is deplorable. At this rate, Chaos will win.
Meanwhile, Borderlands kicked me in the balls. The graphics developed distorted textures and multicoloured sparkles that look like the videocard was on the fritz (Radeon 4780). Fortunately I had seen this before, with F.E.A.R. (whereas FEAR 2 works without a hitch). The problem got worse as I progressed further in the game, although sometimes it fixed itself by crashing and rebooting the display driver. I've tried to do that voluntarily but could not figure out how. Checking the Internet, I found that I was far from alone. The graphics were ported from Xbox to NVIDIA. ATI users were left hanging in the winds and were having similar problems all around the world. And no, there wasn't anything anybody could do about it. I reminded me of another incident: ArmA did not work at all with Radeon video cards. I bought mine from a digital store; I wonder if the retail version had a warning on the cover?
Well, I am not moving over to consoles. For someone like me who spends most of his time at the computer, being able to play and work with the same device is paramount. You write something, get stressed, relax a little by clicking a game icon, close the game and return to your writing... that's how it goes. Getting up, going to another room, switching the telly on, booting up the game console and learning to use that god-awful piece of plastic does not really cut it for me. However, I can't blame people for making that jump and maybe it is for the best. Middle-priced games work just fine on PCs so if the triple-A development moves over to consoles and stops giving PCs a bad rep, we might see some serious growth in the Indie sector. Torchlight is a blast, even in window mode.
Borderlands, lvl 26. Another go with a soldier. Got far. Got bored. On hiatus.
The problem is that Borderlands could be a near-perfect game for me. The shooter/RPG bastard child functionality works well and the graphics... oh man, I am a big fan of this new cell-shaded adult cartoon style! I would not mind seeing more of it. The very MMORPG-like world with zones for enemies of differing level is a game thing but I didn't mind it when soloing World of Warcraft and don't mind it now. I wish there were more varied loot (actually, despite its many flaws, Hellgate London could teach this game a thing or two about loot). But that's not really the problem. The problem is the setting.
Borderlands was made by the same guys who made Diablo. Unfortunately, they left the Blizzard story-writing deparment behind when they fled. Now, I know some people say Diablo II didn't have much of a plot and those people ought to be slapped around with a large trout because they are just flat-out WRONG. Diablo II had a brilliant plot and an exquisite setting, which, despite being clearly gamey, evoked a great sense of epic and purpose. As a world, the Borderlands world of Pandora isn't in a much better shape: it is crawling with psychotic gangs and suicidal monsters, as if the dark wanderer from D2 had just walked by. But this is supposed to be the "normal" state of affairs on Pandora and I am doing all that I am doing (effectively an inspired attempt at a Darfur-sized genocide) simply because I'm greedy for the riches of the Vault. Reading the script, I saw that there are supposed to be emotional motivations involved but it is not communicated in any way. Of course, some people argue it is impossible to invoke that level of epic and atmosphere in a non-fantasy game...
...say, who's that waving in the distance? Looks like Halo 1. And there... Deus Ex, what do you know? Did Starcraft just walk in? And that's.... S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and its fat American little cousin Fallout 3. Now where was I? Oh yes, the sense of epic and immersive atmosphere is clearly a no-go in scifi shooters. Cannot be done. Impossible. Out of the question. And clearly, the guys behind Borderlands didn't even give it a try.
I can't stay motivated in this kind of a game if I don't have anything besides bloodlust to motivate me (okay, it worked disturbingly well in Sniper Elite but that's beside the point). So if I go to see the sheriff of New Haven so that I can risk my life for her, please make the New Haven worth risking it. Like making me waste two mini-nukes in Fallout 3 to save Big Town. The one miner leaning on the wall and repeating the same line about Rakks is not going to cut it. A bunch of drunks from Belarus succeeded in all this with the 100 Rad Bar. Surely a team of renowned game development geniuses on the run from Blizzard can do the same? Hell, you guys succeeded in this with the cities and camps of Diablo II. What the hell happened? Blizzard forbade you take your brains with you since they were now company property?
Borderlands gave me hours worth of entertainment already and I will continue at some point. I still consider it money well spent and will be getting the DLC and any sequels, rumoured to be in the contracting stage. However, it is and remains a valuable lesson in things you can do wrong in an at least semi-plot driven game. Wirepunk take note!
In other news, the concept for the new NOMAD (read the previous entry) has attracted an unusual level of interest (as in: any at all). Those who commented it think it deserves more than 64 pages but that's all I am going to promise you. Of course, it would be fun to write and release a roleplaying game in the same book-sized format as Myrskyn Aika (what where the page dimensions in that thing anyway?) but all that requires time and energy to write. Something I've lacked now that Casual Continent (my day job) is fast approaching its new primary product launch and the usual last-minute problems and crunchtime keep piling up. By the way, all the new people I end up working with seem absolutely delighted when I hand them the specification document of the main product or sometimes their particular task with it. What the hell is going on here? Isn't anybody else writing design or art design specifications anymore?
I posted some stuff about NOMAD on the majatalo.org forums and found an illustrator. Truth to be told, this particular illustrator had offered to draw for me before but back then I didn't know what I was going to do. Now I know NOMAD will be a 64-page A5 game (Mobsters-sized) featuring Scorpio 3.0 rules and a setting based on Code/X: NOMAD. I have a lot on my plate right now but writing on and off, I think we ought to be done by Ropecon'10 next Summer (I know they settled on a date already but I am just too lazy to look it up). I wrote the illustrator a revised description of the setting and later thought it might be good to repeat or expand on that in here as well (in English).
The basic premise has not changed: a gigantic ship, sent at sublight speeds towards a possible habitable planet with a million cryogenically suspended pioneers aboard. It has an accident in deep space, a collision with an unknown object. Damaged, knocked off course and contaminated by an alien influence, centuries later it is still in deep space. TBS-NOMAD is massive. Roughly ring-shaped, the ring itself has a diameter of over 8 kilometres and there are a kilometre long extensions protruding from it, most notably the control and thrust sections. The ring itself is 1.5 kilometres wide and a kilometer thick. It spins, providing centrifugal gravity to those within. The outside edge is armoured with lightweight but extremely strong plates, like millions of black, hexagonal scales. The inside edge is transparent, letting starlight through into the greenhouses. Everything is modular and multiple times redundant. Essential structures are repeated in different sections of the ship so that if a part of the ring is damaged, equipment in other parts can take over. This also goes for the crew, with small cryosections dispersed throughout the ship so that some would always survive.
Between the huge reactors, vast hallways, gargantuan machinery compartments and hangars lies over 2 million kilometres of corridors, tunnels and chutes. It is the floorspace of a medium-sized city, all crammed into a single structure. It used to be logical and easy navigate. Now it is bent, wrecked and blocked. Radioactive. Toxic. Electrified. Awash with plasma fires. Frozen by the coldness of the void outside. Torn by hurricane-strengh winds. Stalked by mutants. Patrolled by killing machines. There are no easy routes and it might take a hundred kilometres to travel between two points actually less than a kilometre apart. Of course, there are always shortcuts, secret pathways known only to a few, barely navigable structural faults and the like if you are willing to accept the risk. Danger is the key to many things but Sanctuaries place great value on trade goods, or whatever useful items you can loot from the forbidden sectors.
There are the Ten Nations, descendants of colonists woken up when the ship was struck. Driven from their dormitories the untainted survivors established sanctuaries in defensible positions and the dating system begins from there. The second generation would call these Sanctuaries their homes and thus the Ten Nations were born. By now, 16 gigaseconds later, they have a history of rivalries, alliances, gold rushes and wars. There have been dictators to unite them, rebellions to divide them and heroes to give them legends and myths of completely their own. Most nations have taken great pains to preserve at least some portion of their technological knowhow through a master-apprentice system but overall, the level of technology has regressed to what can be accomplished in small workshops without the aid of computerised systems or advanced synthetics. Nation craftsmen can work wonders if given LostTek parts to work with but still, the level of technology is down to that of 1930's. Just replace carved wood with cast plastics and cereals with mold, fungi and bacterial nutrients. They still call it beer, you know.
Beyond the Sanctuaries, life is rough. Outcasts are gangs, crazies, hermits and dissidents. Often exiles from the Sanctuaries, they have no love for the Ten Nations. Some are openly hostile and the Nations respond in kind. Most Outcast settlements and hideouts are small and don't last long. If you find a safe spot from other hazards, you can be sure some other bunch of Outcasts wants to take it over. There are exceptions, though. Some settlements are too big to be seriously threatened. Others are too well-hidden to be found. Sometimes a master mechanic or a skilled doctor is protected by other Outcast groups who depend on his services.
While the relations between the Nations and Outcasts can be tense, Outcasts still prefer to cluster around the Sanctuaries and some actually come over to trade. Beyond these clusters lies the vast expanse of corridors, hallways, echoes and death. Xenos remain the primary threat, with the broken superstructure a close second. The collision with the unknown object left pieces of it embedded deep inside the superstructure. It is from these fragments that the alien influence is spreading. The greenhouses have turned into jungles of alien life. Contaminated cryounits become breeding pits for mutants. Sometimes travellers and guards vanish, carried off into the dark by the xenos, only to emerge later as twisted monsters. An individual xeno is a beastly primitive but there are signs of intelligent design behind the alien evolution. The xeno-ecosystem is responding to threats and every generation of mutants is deadlier than the last. Some people claim to sense this alien presence, or been contacted by it. It has even been worshipped as a God.
Humans may have abandoned the fight but Kroy, the ship's computer, never will. After centuries of conflict and trying contain the infestation, Kroy makes no distinction between survivors and aliens. Automated factories are building ever stronger and deadlier sentinels, their technology far above and beyond the skills of the Nations, or indeed the very engineers that originally built Kroy almost 17 gigaseconds ago. A true neural-net computer, capable of learning and self-development, Kroy has evolved just as much as the xenos have. It is also barking mad and the machine evolution has begun to mirror that of the xenos in many ways. It won't communicate with the Nations and the sentinels will eliminate any intruders, humans or otherwise. However, it is more responsive, if not exactly obedient, to Nomads.
For most people, they are a legend. True Nomads attempt blend in with the crowds and the locals who would know better have their many reasons to keep their mouths shut. There are certain features, signs and tattoos that nomads use to recognize each other. They are also healthier, stronger and superbly trained. Many nomads have an unprecedented access to LostTek equipment and are a force to be reckoned with, especially when operating in teams. All Nations have secret societies associated with Nomads and many of their members are descendants of Nomads themselves. Nomads are also the true origin of many heroic tales and other folklore inside and outside of the Sanctuaries. There are even more heroic deeds that no one will ever know.
Nomads are the first-generation ship crew, awakened from their cryopods and explained the changed circumstances. Not mere colonists, these are the people who were supposed to keep the colonists safe on an alien world, explore the alien wilderness and build new things from the body of the ship itself. They have lived healthy lives, been trained for the extremes and equipped with the best gear and the best cyber available at the time. While the present scenario was never contemplated, they can still put their skills to good use. Nomads have been around for centuries but mostly in the background, influencing events and policies throughout the history of Nations. As an untimely death or less frequently the old age takes its toll, teams of Nomads have searched for new crewmembers still asleep in some forgotten corner of the ship. So far the system has worked, although the sleepers will eventually run out.
Nomads do not always agree and there is no clear command structure. Teams pursue their own, sometimes selfish or conflicting goals. Some have abandoned "the mission" entirely and become bounty hunters and LostTek seekers (damn good ones at that) with no goals above immediate survival and comfot. Others have allied themselves with one Nation or some other group, embracing their ideals and promoting their goals. Some would-be dictators and living gods have wreaked havoc until put down by other Nomads. And some have vanished into the forbidden sections in pursuit of some deranged goal, be it contacting the aliens or creating a master race of cyborgs.
Waking up begins with a tingle, a sensation of a thousand needles but it is not in your extremities. It is in the vitals, the heart, the spine, the lungs, the kidneys. You draw a breath, first one in God only knows how many centuries. It comes out as a puff of fog and you are racked with cough. Then a sound from outside cuts it short. Sniffing and a low throb, like a heartbeat. But it is not yours. The window on the lid has iced over. There is some light on the other side but that's all you can tell. Then a shadow falls over it and with a piercing screech, a huge claw draws three parallel lines into the frost. The coffin lets out a hissing sound as the hermetic seal is withdrawn. It's all automatic now and you know the lid will open in a few seconds. The creature knows it too. All it has to do is wait.
What will you do?
I would like to dedicate this blog entry to Mr. Anonymous Asshat (yes, you!) who today commented that "after reading the first two paragraphs [of the previous entry] it was clear this dude didn't know shit about Borderlands... the Soldier is as far from a pure fighter as you can get". What the Hell are you trying to say? That my review was fake and I've never played the game? Or that there is some mystical light of knowledge and wisdom in Borderlands that shines only on the select few and enable them to make observations beyond their their physical senses? That out of a selection of Tank, Siren, Soldier and Hunter, the "Soldier" should have somehow stood-out as the obvious non-fighter?
Checking my calendar, I find that Borderlands appeared on October 30th. I wrote the entry on November 1st, which is two days after. I am such a crappy gamer that I didn't complete the whole fucking game with all the four fucking characters in a little over a fucking day. Besides, some of us have things like work to do, or cleaning up our pad for the upcoming multi-person birthday bash. These are things usually associated with the mythical anti-geek element known as "Life" and I have it. Sometimes more than I would like to. It also means that I can't usually devote more than a couple of hours to playing games at a one go. Sometimes I do but it will usually come to grief in some way.
Then again, in the game itself, my dude can take a fair amount of punishment, likes to use military-grade weapons with automatic fire and has the special ability to whip-up a fully automated machine gun nest in a matter of seconds. This is supplemented by some ability with grenades. That sounds a hell of a lot like a soldier to me. You know, "a pure fighter" in the firefight sense of the word? But no, nothing could be further away. Surely a girl who can turn invisible or a hippie with a goatee that likes to sends his hawk to tear into people is much more a fighter than this typecast dark-skinned copy of a leatherneck from the US Marines. And what the hell do I know, anyway? This is what gameaxis.com had to say about him:
At the frontlines, hes not too shabby with a shotgun and assault rifle, and has decent health upgrades from his skill tree. His weapon skill upgrades are more towards assault rifles.
Our Take: The perfect beginner character, he can double as an offensive and a defensive fighter. Hell, he might remind hardcore MMO players of the Paladin class in that other game from Blizzard.
How the fuck do you define a pure fighter anyway, Sir Asshat? I wanted a scifi-character that can A) hold its own in a solo fight and B) doesn't shoot lightning out of its ass. The Soldier in Borderlands fits the bill. Still does, although he is pissed now you've called him a girlie man.
I write the Designer's Notebook with a broad stroke that covers all things gaming and sometimes even beyond and I let the lot of you read it for free. It is not a review site and it is not journalism. It is me mouthing off, just like now. If it were professional journalism, my going rate for short articles (based on my Enter fees back in the day) is 100 euros per sheet. With my 2000 regular readers that boils down to 5 cents a piece. If you're treating it as such, send me a 5 cent coin and THEN call me a liar. Otherwise you're just being an asshole.
In better news, I've sold a copy of Taiga! Fantasiapelit has apparently sold their stock out and haven't asked for more (not that I blame them), so they are pointing people my way for all their West-Siberian/Central Asian Post-Holocaust Banditry Needs. Fair enough. I usually don't sell stuff direct but if you give me a good reason why you should get one (and this guy did), it's a deal at 15 euros. Would you believe almost half of that is the postage? Itella must be laughing all the way to the bank with these fees!
Rumour has it that Energia Productions has agreed to do a Hacker-themed show with my personal hero Mikko Hyppönen (F-Secure) as their IT security and information crime consultant. Now that got my attention much faster than the Nazis on the Moon ever will.
Finally, Futuremark not only mooned me but shoved my face right into the ass crack. The two previous Shattered Horizons trailers were pathetic but this one, The Escalation, is the best gameplay trailer I've ever seen. Period. The camera angles are a bulls-eye, the atmospheric music really tickles me at the right spot and they've even got the action pacing right, which is a first ever in the history of gameplay trailers. Yes, I was in the beta and got my ass handed to me every time. I won't be playing a pure multishooter like this. But if they ever come up with single-player content for Shattered Horizons, I'll be all over it like it was a box of Fazer Truffels.
Watch the trailer in full screen, if you can. Energia, can you make me a movie about that?
Of course I am playing it solo! That is the whole point of video games! With every other type of game you need to invite some dolts over but with enough videogames the rest of the Humanity can go and hang itself. I played all the Diablos primarily solo as well back in the day. Now much of the same bunch has produced Borderlands, a brand-new FPS/RPG hybrid. The venerable Diablos had this feature that if you played with a friend, the monsters would get a boost but the loot was tied to the monster power so you also got nifty gadgets that served you well later on. Borderlands does the same thing and while perfectly playable as a solo FPS/RPG, it was marketed as a co-op shooter/RPG and some of the features are somewhat crippled otherwise. Like the vehicles. Stopping and hopping from driver's seat to the gunner's seat is beautifully animated but also cripples the concept of vehicle combat. Fortunately you can still drive over most foes.
I chose a soldier as my character because pure fighters are usually easier to solo in these games. I have now levelled him up to level 10. I have yet to try out the co-op and will probably wait for a faster Internet connection or until my girlfriend gets her copy of Borderlands before I do.
While the game looks and feels like post-holocaust, it is actually happening on a frontier planet Pandora far out in space where fortune seekers such as yourself are arriving by the truckload to search for the legendary "Vault", a cache of alien technology hidden somewhere. The vault also has a guardian spirit that hacks into your communication devices from time to time. Unfortunately as frontiers go, Pandora is lawless to the extreme. I can hardly poke my nose out of the starting town Fyrestone without someone trying to shoot or bite it off. The scenery is crawling with mobs and they also respawn with vengance, so moving from A to B and back usually means killing them all over again. There are also peaceful NPCs, bulletin board systems with new missions and vending machines for ammo and healing. All in all, it has a strong MMORPG feel to it, minus the other people. It is also very decidedly "a game". Fallout 3, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and even WOW create this illusion of you being a tiny part of a virtual world that would go on its own if you vanished. Borderlands lacks this sensation, which all things considered is a pity and prevents the game from being "great" in my books. One tiny example are the containers. Every time you reload a zone, all the boxes you emptied before are refilled, giving you an endless source of low income but also destroying a good deal of the immersion.
But it is beautiful. My God, it is beautiful! It honestly looks like an animated comic and trailers don't do it justice. The pixel-shaded graphics also moon at any pretensions of photorealism. I wouldn't mind having all my videogames rendered in this style instead of supposed photorealism and somewhere in the distance I can hear the boss of Crytek crying. The style... Simon Bisley, Hugo Pratt, whoever drew Valerian... sort of realistic and yet cartoonish. The format gives the game an artistic license to exaggerate with characters and fudge with monster animations. I may be wrong but I get the feeling that compared to Crysis, making these characters, animations and monsters was cheap and not negatively but in a "work smarter, not harder" -kind of way. Come to think of it, this is what I always imagined the world of Heavy Gear (RPG/minis franchise from Dream Pod 9) to look like, minus the stupid mechs (which in HG are less stupid than usual if you accept the concept of power armour).
Controls are your typical FPS fare and sooner or later any battle degenerates into circle strafing. Headshots inflict a critical hit and every weapon has a critical damage multiplier. Weapons can also do neat things like set the target on fire, splash it with acid and many other things I probably just haven't seen yet. The dynamic weapon generation system can churn out around 16 million different types of weapons, so it is unlikely for the player will ever see them all. However, my first-person-shooter rampage gets shot in the leg by the level system. Sure, Fallout 3 had also a level system but in Borderlands they fucking mean it. Once I had figured that out, the game became a lot less frustrating but it feels kind of funny when a pistol shot that didn't do squat minutes before now drops the target dead because I have a couple of levels more. On the plus side, movement is flying, player skill still matters and at least with the soldier, the turret system gives you a nice array of tactical options whenever you get to choose the time and place of the fight.
I am a post-holocaust fan and the vehicles in this game make me salivate. I have also always had trouble with the traditional "mouse aim + keys turn" control system used in FPS games but at least the first car turns smoothly (very smoothly) with the mouse and once I got the hang of it, I've never experienced better vehicle controls. The downside is that I can't shoot with the turret unless abandoning the drivers seat but if I made a Car Wars-style of game, I'd use this control system with powerful forward-shooting weapons and weak auto-aiming turrets. It is brilliant and ramming things with the car creates a satisfying "splorch" effect.
All in all, good but not great. Maybe the coop will eventually open up new aspects of the game but so far... well, making it a bit more FPS and a bit less RPG would be nice. Still, it will entertain me well enough until either Metro 2033 or S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Call of Pripyat comes out.
I am not saying I didn't enjoy the Alternative Party this year. And while I do feel cheated, all these things didn't come as a surprise either. It wasn't a waste of time, just... watered down. On the bright side, it made me think of a new booth concept for Assembly. Wirepunk wants to be there at some point and I began to think of a boxy arrangement called "The Wirepunk Office". We'd go there to do game development and if somebody stops by to ask us something, we'll answer them. Nothing more, nothing less. It worked in the Alt Party, even if all we had were computer seat tickets and a place where everybody walking along the main isle would see what we had on our screens.
The Alternative Party theme for 2009 was cyberpunk. Things got off to a rocky start already in the Spring when their lead blogger first announced that she didn't know shit about it. After her only slightly less clueless friends made her watch Ghost In the Shell, she decided that she disliked the whole Cyberpunk thing. Now that's the kind of person I want to have blogging on my cyberpunk event website. Maybe she was the only one in the bunch with working fingers but frankly, if that's the best they can do they would have been better off without a blog.
Once the ticket sales information came available it also became painfully clear that also the rest of them had no knowledge of the subject beyond Cyberpunk 2020. My computer seat ticket is an Edgerunner ticket. This made me a little uneasy but then I saw that their sponsorship ticket (at whopping 950 euros) was named Alt Cunningham Ticket. Of all the fictional characters ever created for the genre, from Neuromancer to Snowcrash to Accelerando, they had to go for a briefly mentioned NPC in CP2020, whose only accomplishment was to get severed from her body by her own program because of a bad guy whose motives still escape me.
That's the prequel, now onto the actual event. It looked nice, much nicer than the last time. The balance of seating, free space and use of lights in the Merikaapelihalli of Kaapelitehdas was done just right. I felt right at home and managed to pull off more game development during the Alt Party than during the weekday evenings of the previous three weeks put together. Lovely. The two things that sucked were food (I would not have believed I would look back on the offerings of the Hartwall Arena with longing) and the Cyberpunk theme itself. Last year's Steampunk theme was very well done, the techno-art show was to the point and the organizers had made an effort to prop things up. They even sold top hats, which, to make a long story short, lead to my girlfriend now wearing a quality top hat she bought from England. Nothing like that was available this time and even Finncon had more cyberpunk props for sale. The party T-shirt was very pretty but compared to last year, the theme flopped badly.
Friday evening ended with bands and the one-man-show put on by Byproduct really floored me. I had listened to his music before as a background noise to my writing but the way he played those same songs live... wow, just wow. I am an old school heavy metal guy but if all live techno were that good, they'd convert me. Being old and tired, I had to skip the other band (Dope Stars) but later heard that while the band had done a good job, the audience had been sparse and the reception lukewarm. Knowing that they had skipped a gig in Berlin to take part in a "Cyberpunk Party", I really feel sorry for them. If I felt cheated, I can only imagine how they must have felt.
On Saturday, there actually was some effort to salvage the lagging cyberpunk theme. At fitst I had no idea who the two main speakers were but after hearing their spiel, all I can say is "respect". These ladies were hackers, in the original sense of the word (wild and irresponsible information technology tinkerers). There also was a cyberpunk-themed costume party. The participants were very good but the announcer totally phoned it in. She couldn't speak fluent English (this is an English-speaking event as far as the programme is concerned), she had no clue about the genre and all in all gave the impression she'd been dragged onto the stage by her hair. They actually had to do the costume lineup twice, because besides the costumes, the participants were supposed to have a story to tell about their alter egos in the cyberpunk future. Again, the participants were brilliant but the announcer was not familiar with the format of her own show.
Then there were the demos. Oh, the demos. Unlike last year, they actually managed to make them run but I am clearly of the wrong focus group. I like watching the demo compos in Assembly but... well, let's leave it at that. They must have been technically brilliant and I am just too ignorant to appreciate them properly. And the Sunday was dead. Very, very dead. Everybody is dead tired, there are no more bands, speeches or demos, everyone has been living on crappy food and salty snacks and it is raining like a bastard outside. I hate the Alt Party and Assembly Sundays (and to a lesser extent the Ropecon Sunday as well). The whole day is just one, long, drawn-out death.
In retrospect, Alt Party also cheated me for 20 euros. The 55-euro computer seat ticket does nothing more than ensures that you have a computer seat and counts for nothing as long as you don't have compete for seats with someone who only has the 35-euro regular ticket. I have a disquieting feeling that I was the only one who actually paid extra for his computer seat and everybody else had just the regular party ticket (Netrunner Ticket). We all enjoyed the same benefits anyway.
Oh well. It is not like I would not go there next year and maybe this was just a slump from their usual level. And despite my whining it wasn't a waste of time by any means. I just felt... like it was missing something.
Next time I'll tell you about a cyberpunk setting idea I had today. Maybe someone will get something out of it.
Scorpio was the final iteration of the 2D6+N system used in my games from Miekkamies to Taiga. It seems like every would-be roleplaying game author goes through this stage and I guess never really got over it. I am a big friend of the bell curve and the 2D bell curve was easy to memorize. It also scaled to superhuman levels if that's what you wanted. But however much I liked it, the fact remains it was not sexy enough. Players don't like it and while mathematically it is no different from any bell curve system, people don't play roleplaying games for mathematical analysis. The way things feel are way more important than the way things are. Scorpio had one crucial advantage to all my other systems, however: it made mincemeat of the combat handling, especially if your focus was on firefights. Mobsters know this well and that's why I also copied much of the Code/X combat rules from Scorpio. And I like it.
As long as I am not asking money for stuff, I don't have care about the mass appeal and that's why it is perfectly okay for me to toy with the idea of Scorpio 3. It's been 11 years since I last applied it to something. What would I do differently?
I have been an advocate of genre realism long before I actually began to demand it from my rules systems. The original Scorpio rules were a poor attempt at being simulationist, which in Mobsters finally worked to my advantage as the failures from the simulationist perspective could be explained away (or even highlighted) as upholding the gangster flick genre and feel. Yeah, right, but if you hit the hole-in-one by accident it still counts as a hole-in-one. Let's learn from it. I would probably use Scorpio in an action-heavy modern or science fiction game. Code/X NOMAD is my choice for setting for now and I'll talk more about that later on.
Scorpio 3 would have around 30 generalised skills. The skill list in ENOC was great; I'd probably aim for something along those lines but expanded and little more tailored to the genre. They would be rated from 0 to as high as +10 but the maximum level at start would be +5. Two +4 skills, three +3 skills and four +2 skills. Finally the player would have three skills points to throw around singly as natural gifts or special interests. Putting one into an existing skill would allow him to reach the max level of +5, while putting them into new skills would give him "student" -level proficiency in some things. Roughly put, a +3 skill is high enough to live on and most people who work in groups or collectives can cope with +2. Hmm... actually the CP2020 skill level interpretations would apply fairly well here, unlike in CP2020 itself.
Stats would be completely replaced with Traits. You pick a -1 flaw and you get a +2 (or two +1) edges. For example, the player chooses that his character is Obese and therefore has -1 to everything where that might be a hindrance (acrobatics, endurance sports, tests of willpower when resisting delicious goodies or charm when appearances count). On the other hand, he would be strong (+1 where brute force might be helpful) and have a relaxed, teddy-bearish demeanor (+1 when resisting provocation or trying to soothe other people who are shocked or traumatized over something). The player can have up to +6 worth of edges, split into bonuses of +2 and +1, at the cost of three deficiencies at -1 each (and they would of course have to roleplayed too, as part of the character's personality and essence). I think we can see the influence of Stalker RPG on this one, especially when Traits can also indicate supernatural properties, or be the prerequisite for certain things like netrunning.
Game mechanics are simple as hell: 2D + Skill + any modifiers against a competing roll or a preset treshold. As for the rest, you can figure it out from the card system description.
You know, if you are eagerly waiting for some product to appear for 19 years, the wait itself becomes a part of your personality. There is this certain romantic longing for what you envision it to be and the bitterness towards the powers that prevented the release back in the day (damn you, Rick Priestley!). To have the bloody thing suddenly come out is quite a shock. Really. It will take me a while to pick up the pieces and re-arrange my mental landscape. Age has made me cynical and when I first heard Fantasy Flight Games was about to release Rogue Trader RPG (actually the license leap-frogged from one company to another), I knew that while I would be prepared to kill to get my hands on it, I was also probably headed for a huge disappointment. How could the game possible match the expectations piled on it for 19 years?
Pretty darn well, it turns out.
Oh, it is not perfect by any means. This is one of most cumbersome rules system I've come across and certainly the most complex I have ever run; not because the math in itself would be tough but because the author has tried to retain some sense of compatibility with the associated miniature games and it just does not work out. It is written in an overly verbose style. While adding colour to the text also makes the actual rules mechanics difficult to pick out from the sea of ink. How would I describe it... it is like reading one of those very old fact books, where everything is written as subjective essays, rather than shown in concise tables, timelines or diagrams. Emperor Be Praised, they made an exception with the equipment list but seriously, this book could lose some weight. However, once you've conquered the wall of text, you're hit with a broadside of awesome.
Like all Warhammer roleplaying games, the character generation is based on a career path of sorts but it is less restrictive here and ends in pre-defined archetypes that all have logical roles on the Rogue Trader approach to the WH40K setting. Just like with Stalker and for much of the same reasons, all characters will have a rudimentary background history by default and including things like motivations as part of the career path should give new ideas for developing the character personality as well. Then it hits you. Something unique (or at least new to me) among RPGs: the power level. Your average adventurer party is the command team of a 1.5-kilometre ship with a crew of 20,000+. The ship itself is but the head of a deep and byzantine mercantile organization that provides you with such assets that you never have to count coins in this game. Your wealth, measured in Profit Score, is actually a measure of politicial influence and access to special items your average scifi-adventurer only dreams of.
Think Star Trek; the player characters are the cast of the show and do everything that requires talent or daring. The ship itself is a community of 20,000 redshirts that while adept at being crew members, are literally cannon fodder if the push comes to the shove. Surviving adventures is as much about facing dangers and challenges from outside as it is to keeping watch over morale, weeding out impending trouble (like esoteric Death Cults emerging among the lower ranks, or stopping religious fervour from making the crew leave on a pilgrimage en masse), as well as being constantly on the lookout for spies, saboteurs and heretical influences. Unless dining with an Imperial governor, an admiral or an inquisitor, the player characters are likely to be the most powerful people around.
Always wanted an Antique Power Sword for your character? A Storm Bolter? Something else cool that has previously been reserved for 1000+ point WH40K figurines? This is your chance to do it.
Rogue Trader adventures are often meant to increase the Profit Score. While a big commercial deal might keep the ship fed and happy, establishing colonies, opening new trade routes and finding lost civilizations is where the big bucks lie. This is only logical, if PS is measuring influence as much as wealth. Come to think of it, if you want a roleplaying campaign of swashbuckling privateers, megacorp big shots or princes in a court, this is a good model for any genre. Mobsters actually tried to do something like this but it was still pushing bank notes around. Here billions of Thrones (Imperial currency) are abstracted and the player does not have scribble into the character sheet every time he buys a drink (and tests it for poison), or shells out gold and gems to bribe an Administratorum clerk. It just happens. Pocket change. No big deal.
Okay, we have skills, talents, psychic powers, guns, gear... Oh My Emperor!
The ship acquisition rules of Rogue Trader have been forever burnt onto my heart. It almost brought me to tears. The ships... they may not have a brain or AI but boy, do they have soul! The idea of ships, many of them having been in service for centuries or millenia, developing quirks that eventually tie them into fates, motivations and deeper goals is as simple as it is brilliant. There are just two roll tables for it but I could see the drama play out in my head when reading them. You have an old ship, a cranky old bastard held together with duct-tape and sweat drops where nothing ever seems to work right... then it takes a critical hit and one of the guns is supposed to be a hole big enough to build a house in... but the gun still works because the cranky old bastard is just as difficult to kill as it is to cure! Or the ship has a reputation of being haunted, strange things happen in the dark bowels and morale is wavering... but its sensors, soaked in warp, can pick up premonitions and occult visions in addition to factual observations! Beautiful stuff!
Actual space combat rules seem complicated as hell, though. And some of the play examples fill me with dread. They don't say it out loud but I think it should be played with figurines (or Battlefleet Gothic). Otherwise, calculating all the movements and facings is going to be a nightmare.
There is still quite a bit of stuff left. This is a thick book, about 5 centimetres or more. Besides providing an overview of the Empire and the WH40K setting and culture in general, it focuses on a part of space called the Koronus Expanse, which is good because a game map of half the galaxy would have been... a little daunting. I'll write more when I've read all that through. I would have liked to have more NPC stuff, like Tyranids but I guess they think since they already did that for Dark Heresy and the games are fully compatible, it would be useless to repeat it in another book. By the way, to give you some idea of the power level, Dark Heresy characters can be brought over to Rogue Trader but the crossover guide recommends that they should have at least 5000 experience points. Thus, a rank 5 character from Dark Heresy is equal to a Rank 1 character from Rogue Trader. With this kind of power scale, it will be interesting to see what they have come up with for Space Marine characters in the forthcoming Adeptus Astartes RPG.
All in all, Rogue Trader is a huge and gorgeous-looking space opera/scifi-fantasy epic that also validates my personal approach to roleplaying game design: The WH40K universe is seriously huge and Fantasy Flight Games is publishing no less than three parallel roleplaying games set in it. Yet the focus is razor-sharp; we are creating a Rogue Trader and his companions for the ship's command crew. That determines what is important and what can be left out. It also ties the loose threads together and gives it all meaning. It works beautifully and apart from NPC monsters and having some ships are my fingertips, I don't really feel the need to buy more supplements. That might be bad for the cashflow but at least Fantasy Flight Games is keeping its customers happy and I wouldn't mind throwing some more money their way. As for myself, the game I have been waiting for since 1990 is there. It is buried under heaps of unnecessary text. It is hiding in the amateurish pacing. It is locked behind a door made of overtly complicated rules. But it is there, even if you have to dig a little.
I would not have believed it in a million years.
My limited-personalized-collector's-edition box of Rogue Trader RPG, complete with its unique Imperial Rogue Trade Charter with my name on it, got held up by the customs. Besides not being sure of its value, they had some difficulty in determining what it was. I finally convinced them that the product itself was a book and all the extra bits they were so confused about were just fancy packaging. But I wish I had brought a camera. The looks on their faces when I unwrapped the thing for inspection was worth a million bucks right there.
"err... what is it?"
"it's a book."
"okay, that part of it is a book... but the product here... is it a book?"
Well, it was a book and taxed as such, cutting the VAT down to 8% and below the minimum treshold of what the customs would actually want you to pay, so it was zero taxes after all. It sure is a fancy package and it made me think that although I am not too keen on buying new games in these days, when I do decide to buy one the money isn't an issue. I am an adult, I have a full-time job and I buy new roleplaying games so rarely I can afford a luxury like this. Besides, this box was made for showing off, not hiding them in the basement like the rulebooks I grew up with. A good thing too. I've waited 19 years for this game. Now that I've got it, boy am I going to let the whole world know! The average age of roleplayers has risen in parallel with their income. And if a roleplaying game can clearly be a status object, why aren't we seeing more books like this one? I could use a little more class in my designer cave.
If I ever publishing another roleplaying game, I am going to have the production quality up the ass, bundle it with goodies in a showy metal case and slap a three-digit price tag on the cover. The price and the implied status are part of the product. If you don't like them, the game is not for you. Simple. I guess this is why videogame publishers have been putting out all sorts of super-deluxe-penis-extension-collector's-editions of videogames with every new release and they are selling better and better. We might soon be approaching the point where collector's editions actually outsell the standard retail editions. And there is the added bonus of emotional investment by the player. That high price tag isn't there to get the players' money. It is there to get their souls.
Another piece of good news, as well as a complete surprise, was finding the Elämäpeli review in the October issue of Pelit magazine. I had missed it until now but there it is, a small but glowing box review by none other than the veteran game reviewer and game columnist Nnirvi. As a long-time fan, I am honoured. As the author, I am also ecstatic since he really liked it. I also loved the way he began his reivew: "Vanha koira kirjoittaa uusia kirjoja..." as it implies familiarity with my early works. Elämäpeli has not got the attention level that Pelintekijän käsikirja or STALKER got but on the other, all the attention so far has been pure love. Everybody likes it, one way or the other. Considering how difficult Elämäpeli was to write, I think it is a fucking miracle.
It is a busy Autumn but there will be a Rogue Trader campaign, starting this December. And as for the players... well, you know who you are :)
It is mid-October and the Black Box closing, trapping us in unending darkness and twilight until the end of February.
My workdays are spent playtesting and balancing out Casual Continent's upcoming Browser MMO, Crown of Byzantium. As usual, the playtesting has started before all the gameplay elements were there because the bosses were anxious to get early feedback and shit. It actually degrades the value of playtesting because it forces me to respond to feedback on broken and unfinished mechanisms. Usually I end up tweaking them so that the game works (in a manner of speaking) in its incomplete form. Then as more features are being completed, I end up tweaking them back to somewhere in the ballpark of their original figures. It is important to retain an overall sense and some documentation as to what you were thinking in the different stages of these alterations so you can backtrack to what you originally wanted the game to do.
I am not saying this to invalidate testing, far from it. Without testing nothing works and I had to learn this the hard way. But everywhere I've worked, producers, bosses or financial controllers just can't help starting the playtesting the moment they have something moving on screen, "because it is good to get expert feedback early on". It is one of the big fallacies in game development. Just like the idea that decisions made by a committee would somehow reduce the risks involved. It's psychological, a comforting illusion that won't hold up if you put any weight or stress on it.
Leaving workplace around 5pm, I am commuting to another one at home:
Reaching home, I flick the switch and barring occasional revisits to Fallout 3 (soon to be replaced with Borderlands) start typing Wirepunk stuff; design documents, website content (coming soon and hopefully even sooner), email correspondence, grant applications, business plan... It is not as dramatic as it sounds. I used to type Burger Games stuff and now Wirepunk has taken over, except that as a genuine commercial venture shared by multiple people it also involves obligations, milestones and deadlines. But so far that hasn't been a problem and I really like what we are doing. I hope you will too.
The real problem is of course Burger Games getting sidelined. If and when the Wirepunk dev blog starts, this blog might actually suffer the same fate. I am not closing Burger Games down or anything (hell, I've got inventory) but I think we are looking at another multi-year waiting period until the next release. Worse still, is the fate of Stalker RPG. I have received quite a few requests for Stalker RPG to be translated into English and I already have the permission for it but someone needs to actually do it. I don't have the time and it is quite an expensive piece of text to throw at some professional translation agency. The older of the Tuovinen brothers considered translating it by himself last spring but I guess that fell through when someone offered him real money to translate something else. Any other takers? I might even consider a licensing deal on the translation if someone still believes he can make money in the RPG market.
There is a heated debate going on in the Roolipelaaja forum over... what? Actually, I am not sure. I can only marvel at the ability of some people to remember what everyone else has said and build summaries or logical flowcharts out of it. My brains aren't up to the task. Feeling stupid, I dropped out of the conversation but one thing bothers me; calling the average roleplayers this or that and blaming them for not being willing to "expand their sphere of interest" or whatever. It is worth writing about it here because it is a central theme in any Burger Games production (even if Stalker was stretching it).
In any and all roleplaying-related publishing projects, that elusive "average roleplayer", no matter how red-necked, ignorant or despicable he is, is the One Constant. A roleplaying game author can rewrite or change everything else in the project but that. The One Constant is the final arbiter of any published game and blaming them when yours did not fly is like blaming the gravity when your airplane lacks wings. I have great respect for the One Constant. It dominates my creative thinking as a roleplaying game author and as a novelist. While this blog and whatever other free projects I might have let me toy with unproductive ideas, the moment I ask somebody for money the One Constant comes crashing back into the picture. I don't blame it for my failures and I don't mock it for having different preferences or standards from my own.
Praedor was tailor-made for the One Constant. Stalker, or Flow, to be more precise, was an experiment to push the limits of the One Constant and to see if a bridge could be built between it and some artsy niche like diceless roleplaying. I deem the sales of 300+ copies a "good try" as Stalker sales have now dropped off and I don't expect to take any more print runs. Personally, I think Stalker is my finest work but I am not the judge of that. All this time, Praedor has kept on selling, slowly but surely. On December 8th, this year, Praedor RPG will be 9 years old. Next year, me and Petri will have to bake a cake.
Mikko "Mikki" Rautalahti took offence in my speculations in the previous entry. I don't blame him since I was flat-out wrong on many things. He also expressed an angry but dignified wish that I would shut the fuck up since I didn't know what the fuck I was talking about. Of course, I would not be me if I did that. Besides, I am on a roll! It's been a long time since I've felt this motivated to blog about something and I'll be damned before I let it go to waste.
I always knew that Mikki had been the first editor but I always thought the Norway Fan Club was part of the project early on. Apparently, this was not the case and Mikki felt that much of my misguided criticism about the magazine's logic was aimed at him. It wasn't; the early numbers were a bit messy in style and content but that's true of every new magazine. Mikrobitti (started in 1984) proves that some magazines never get over it. Mikki also dropped an interesting piece of intel about pitching the project to H-town; the sales estimates were based on Ropecon attendance, which in 2006 was still fast approaching 4000. With the benefit of hindsight you can poke some holes into that estimate but let's face it; if I had been on the other side of the table, I would have bought it. Hook, line and sinker.
The logic is obvious: 4000 people are willing shell out 20 euros in admission tickets and God knows how much more on various goodies and gadgets on sale. I usually get a free pass and my Ropecon budget is still around 200 euros. That half of these people would shell out 40 euros a year for a hobby magazine subscription does not seem too far-fetched. It would have been a good start anyway. Come to think of it, the only two things that kept me from attempting the same were A) laziness and B) my instinctive pessimism regarding the roleplaying game industry. And even with all that happened, I am still a little sorry I didn't give it a try. Now it is too late. Wirepunk saw to that.
Riimuahjo means to lock down the Roolipelaaja webforum in about a month, which hopefully concentrates what little traffic remains to majatalo.org. That place has not been too lively of late either. Burger Games declared majatalo.org its official forum substitute years ago. The demise of Roolipelaaja reaffirms this commitment, assuming I ever publish anything in that field again. To be honest, Wirepunk is very stimulating when it comes to roleplaying game ideas but with "Häirikkötehdas" (my next book) also in the works, there are only so many ambitious projects I can handle. Still, it was a great boon to have a hobby magazine around and I really hope there was something to Mikki's hunch about a potential economic niche. Because, you know, a void tends to get filled.
It is now official; the Roolipelaaja magazine has closed its doors. We, who have been writing for it, were told the day before but asked to wait for the official announcement before going public with this. Now it is out, so here we go. The 23-issue run was a valiant effort and despite its professional appearance, I don't think any of us were ever compensated for our work. They were completely open and honest about so this is not a gripe but an observation. Roolipelaaja may have looked like a commercial magazine but it was a communal effort. Our contribution to the scene. I know that certain asscracks will now make a big number about their indifference but I am sad to see the magazine go. Besides, it was easier for Burger Games to operate in a market with a printed media that everybody knows. It was an excellent starting point for word-of-mouth marketing, even if only the first person in the chain ever read it.
<Censored>This is not to say I was entirely happy with Roolipelaaja. It was founded as a roleplaying lifestyle magazine, which in itself enough to make pen&paper gamers' minds boggle. I can sort of see how an avid LARPer or an artsy theorist might come to believe in such a thing but nine out of ten roleplayers out there could not figure out what the hell these people were talking about. Eventually they did climb out of that hole but the damage was done. Some people would see it as a club magazine for Nordic School elitists to this day. But a more fundamental problem was that people behind it had absolutely no clue of what they were getting into. The early discussions on the forums were telling; their guesses on the RPG sales in Finland were off by an order of a magnitude, which is enough to screw up even the best-laid plans. Why they didn't ask someone who knew, like the Fantasiapelit owners, is beyond me.
I assume they sold the idea of a magazine to H-town with their own guestimates and H-town dropped Roolipelaaja when the masses (that were never there) failed to materialize. The key people then founded Riimuahjo to keep it going but while they did many things right, the countdown had already started. The only real question is whether the magazine ever really had a chance. I like to think that it did but this is just wishful thinking. To this day, I am a little fuzzy about this "roleplayer lifestyle" thing and while many of the later articles were genuinely good, they were always overshadowed by the mighty Internet. I love Juhana's article on Antarctica but it still pales in comparison to what my Firefox can tell me. This is a problem with all information-based printed media and I don't know how to resolve it. As for peoples' experiences and opinions... I would have to give a shit to pay for something like that.</Censored>
So what would I have done differently?
I would have started a magazine that would make no difference between traditional roleplaying and the more serious CRPGs. The vibrant RP scenes in EVE, UO and to lesser extent WoW would have been included into the "roleplayer lifestyle thing", while pen&paper content would have had a heavy dose of sexed-up supplemental articles for the most popular games out there. The tone and style would have been somewhere closer to Tähtivaeltaja, or the old White Wolf magazine before they got all goth and shit. I would have been at loss on what to do with LARPs, so this is where partners would come in. Still, LARPs with high attendance and budgets would take precedence over "upplevelser", barring the occasional column by some Nordic School elitist. Many of them are superb writers, you know.
I doubt if I had made any money either and this is just hot air anyway. Being an armchair critic is all too easy. They did Roolipelaaja their way and I am grateful for it. For 23 issues the world was a better place.
Matti Nikki is one of the bravest people around. He dares to defy any kind of public illusion, straw man or hysteria if they are being used for idiotic, unlawful or inhumane purposes. His anti-web-censorship website is still being censored by the Police (illegally as this is against a court order but who do you complain to if it's the cops who are breaking the law?). Now he has been convicted of displaying a parody website of Pelastakaa Lapset (Rescue the Children) Association's "Pedophile Hot Line" website. I always thought that parody enjoyed a special status regarding the copyright law because it is a traditional method of critisizing established laws, powers or practises. Kari Suomalainen made a career out of it. However, Nikki has just been convicted in the lower court for violating the original website's copyright. The judge also decreed that his Pelastakaa Pedofiilit -website is not parody because members of PeLa can find it insulting. You can probably extrapolate the consequences of this logic. And so, with a tap of a hammer, the judge shut down one of the most important and traditional venues of public criticism and free speech in this country.
Nikki, of course, will take the case to higher courts and the result may yet be overturned. Then again, he has a history of being made a cautionary example to any other would-be citizen activists. Here is the account of his intentions and motives in creating the Pelastakaa Pedofiilit (Save the Pedophiles) website and I agree with him. However, not wishing to pay fines or go to jail, this blog entry is not parody and does not copy the PeLa Vigilante Site in any shape or form. Instead, my insults are loud and clear. I think Pelastakaa Lapset Association is a bunch of hysterical morons who have rejected the the rule of law in favour of misguided vigilantism. If I thought them smart enough, I would also call them power-hungry manipulative fascist bastards who are still trying to ride the now thankfully abating waves of Internet Paranoia and child porn hysteria. But that would mean they could not be morons, so I have to settle on the Hysterical Retard Theory.
The next time Pelastakaa Lapset asks me for a donation I am going to fax them a picture of my ass. Or spit in their faces if one of those creeps accosts me on the street. On the other hand, if there is a Pelastakaa Matti Nikki Association, count me in! I do "Think of the Children" as much as the next guy but I also think of what kind of society I would like mine to live in.
My opinion on Fallout 3 is well-documented, let's take a look at another post-holo offering this Fall: Fallen Earth. Set in the 22nd century, Earth in general and Humanity in particular are recovering from a deadly plague that caused severe unrest and even a nuke strike or two. For decades, a settlement at Hoover Dam has preserved the civilization with the help of synchronized cloning technology that made everyone immortal. Then shit hits the fan, a madman destroys the system and the last clones are revived by various factions in the surrounding wasteland. The over-arcing story missions appears to be the restoration of your immortality. I am part of CHOTA, Children of the Apocalypse, a Mad Maxish gang of roadwarriors and troublemakers.
For starters, lets just all agree that this game is fucking ugly. And it is not about polygon count or technology: it looks bad even compared to a 2002 rival Neocron and the more rounded faces and detailed textures cannot hide the fact that the art director should have gotten the boot years ago. This game lacks artistic vision so badly that having the events play out in the flat deserts of Arizona can't save it. I could go on and on about the details but the overall feeling is amateurish. The straw that broke the camels back were the corpse flies. Whenever you kill something that you can loot, a cloud of flies appears on top of the corpse (or strangely at an angle if the corpse is at an angle). Unfortunately, this is very obviously a flat sprite and the flies themselves are black blobs with a two-position wing animation on either side that look more like droopy ears. It looks like something drawn by a 6-year old. I am usually the last person to complain about graphics in a videogame but this time I had to stop playing for a day to recover from the visual shock.
Mental note: if a room feels empty, never try to make it livelier by dropping non-interactive guns and equipment all over the place. Especially when it is in a part of tutorial where the player is already anxious to get his hands on new and better gear.
The game is a FPS/TPS hybrid and moving the viewpoint into the FPS mode works reasonably well. Kudos for that. There are two interaction modes, combat and all else. In combat, you hit/shoot/fart at whatever you are aiming in a crude FPS fashion, while in "other" you can move about with arrow keys while using the mouse to interact with icons, buttons and clickable objects on screen. I usually forget to switch modes after killing someone and waste a crossbow bolt on the corpse while trying to loot it. Some stuff can be looted by default and for others you need a specific skill. There are plenty of skills to go around and a steady stream of APs (advancement points) to nudge them upwards. I could not quite figure out how the tradeskills work and the overall learning curve is steep. This is definitely a hardcore game and it is obvious from start that crafting is the most important activity there is. There are vendors to buy goods from but for the most part you are apparently expected to make your tools. It is very fitting for a post-holo setting but I wish they had made the interface easier. I have the recipe for cooking food but there is no way to know what good it will do and how to do it. Boys and girls, your interface is an unholy mess.
And if this is such an important part of the gameplay, why did you leave it out of the tutorial? Any fool knows that putting the targeting reticle on someone and clicking the left mouse button for trigger is how you kill people in videogames. It is making more ammo and stuff where we need help.
Wirepunk, take note!
Combat. Oh yeah. Like in most MMORPGs, the enemies are clusters of mobs that either stand still or move around in a very small area, waiting for someone to do them in for loot and experience. Unlike in most MMORPGs, the flat spaces of Arizona desert provide no natural boundaries and the groups feel strangely out of place. This is especially true for human enemies; with mutated animals some pack behaviour is only to be expected. I bet those Blade Dancer warriors are bored out of their skulls. Well, I switch to combat mode, put the targeting reticle on the enemy and press ctrl+1 half a dozen times before the game accepts my request to equip the crossbow instead of a shiv. This bow even has a scoped sight on but something must be off with it because I can't hit anything. The problem is miraculously fixed by moving from close range to insanely close range. Suddenly I find myself missing the sniper rifles in Neocron. On the other hand, a couple of solid hits later the enemy keels over. Strange that his buddy, standing right next to my victim, does not seem too bothered. Oh well, at least he attacks me when I move close enough to loot the body. The combat is functional but the enemy AI is bad enough to make you want to scream. I wish they would explain secondary attacks in weapon descriptions. Next patch, maybe.
This is an MMORPG launched less than a week ago. It would not be fair to give it a final verdict. Besides, I love this genre and really want to see it grow and prosper. But I just... I cannot find that something that would make me play this game. Not in this day and age. Not now. Not yet. And with Borderlands coming out in October 30th, these guys are going to be in so much trouble it hurts to even think about it. Try it out, if you are curious. It will undoubtedly get better over time if the initial sales are good enough to survive on. But you can also blow your money on Fallout 3 with all the adds and keep playing that until the end of next month. I wonder how Rage is doing?
If someone from Icarus is reading this, don't take it personally. Any release is a great feat and Fallen Earth could be a very different game a year from now. Besides, you'll get your chance to chew us out when Wirepunk gets there...
Is it just me or are the intervals in this blog getting longer? Lots of things are happening right now, on and off work. And because of Wirepunk telling the two apart is not so easy anymore. In this hamster wheel, a day like this when I can't do anything else because I am gamemastering Stalker feels downright idyllic. Something out of a bygone age, when people had enough money, energy and sleep (because the rent on a student box is low, they have lots of spare time and they get up late). None of that is possible anymore but my most recent Stalker campaign has had an amazing session rate of once every two weeks. We've been at it for a couple of months now, so skipping most of October because of other hassles does not feel so bad. The enthusiasm for play is up and if we are strict about picking it up again late next month, the delay is not a problem. This is how roleplaying game campaigns should be played. Mental note: If I ever plan on starting another RPG campaign and it can't have a session every two weeks, it is not going to happen. Period.
I have a publishing contract on a new book I've named Häirikkötehdas. It is another semi-autobiographical work (publishers seem strangely interested in my past for some reason) but this time there is an agenda. My own elementary school years were a constant battle to preserve my sense of self. Afterwards the attitudes were reversed but I was left wondering about the relationship between creative industries and our education system to this day. I've been on all three sides of this issue and the current study plan is up for grabs from the Ministry of Education. School system also often depicted to be at odds with the gamer scene, even if Finland has nothing like the moral panic the religious right is whipping up in Germany right now. So, armed with my previous titles, dark memories, some understanding of the industry's current needs and the current study plan from the Ministry, I plan to throw my two cents into the "Innovation School" -debate. Not that I think anyone would notice.
Wirepunk means lot of paperwork and we are probably starting a dev blog once the product website is up and running. That could eat into the time I have for this blog even further but we'll see.
Has anyone tried the card game rules yet?
Welcome to the Happy Entry on Designer's Notebook. It does not happen often but today there are only good news.
Since Bethesda locked me out of their forums unfairly, in my opinion it would be only fair to damn Fallout 3 to hell in this blog. But even if the publishers are fucking idiots, I fucking love this game. I am also a fanboy of the Old Fallouts but unlike most of my kind, I don't like computer RPGs in general. On the other hand, I am a big fan of first-person shooters (especially if they have sandbox worlds). Others may see Fallout 3 as a betrayal of the old ways but I think it is a triumph that brings out the best of the both worlds. Of course, the dozen or so square miles of territory in the game can't match the epic scale of the old Fallout travel map but it is big enough, and there are loads of places to go and secrets to find. The graphics are good enough for me and I would not have believed that the stop-watch aiming system, V.A.T.S., would fit into a first-person-shooter this smoothly. All the old skills and most of the old perks are there as well but it *is* a shooter, so you can't complete this game without firing a shot (legend says that in Fallout 2 you could play the game through that way).
So which one is better? Fallout 3 or S.T.A.L.K.E.R? While I maintain that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has a better atmosphere, the sheer amount of content and variety in Fallout 3 takes the cake. And while the "Marked One" in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was a splendid blank slate to impose your own in-game personality on, Fallout 3 takes the cake here again. I have heroes living in my head for certain specific genres. You have already met Old Dog, my pulp fantasy hero. If I think of a story in that genre, he is righr there, unbidden and won't go away. For baroque fantasy (Miekkamies), I still have Rodolf Krane, the Relgian gentleman, swordsman and a rogue. And for post-holocaust (and to a disturbing extent in cyberpunk as well) there is Arkangel. I have no idea why I always play a female character (or this specific female character) in post-holocaust. I bet Sigmund Freud would have a field day with that. Fallout 3 does not let me create as good Arkangel as Fallout Tactics did but it's close enough. I just think that if she were in a novel, she would not be this saintly.
Fallout 3 runs on an upgraded Oblivion engine (you can see for miles around! This is brilliant for exploration-heavy games!). Oblivion drew a lot of flak because of its autobalancing feature, which levelled up monsters and even city guards as the player got tougher. In a traditional fantasy epic this is an excellent way to remove any feeling of "epic" or achievement from the game. A high-fantasy RPG with a level system is effectively a power trip and if the player can't get it, the game is broken. Fallout 3 also has an autobalancing feature but it is much less draconian and I think it actually improves the game. When you encounter new enemy types, they are balanced according to your present level but remain more or less locked on that power level for the rest of the game. Also, the opposition and wandering monsters roaming around get tougher (upgrading from Bloatflies to Deathclaws). Even so, overland travel is fairly safe if you keep your wits about you and know how to use a long-range weapon. In the dungeons, I sneak about and blast enemies with damage x 5 sneak attack criticals to the head. With a plasma rifle. The effect is usually very visceral.
The beauty of the system is that when the sneak attacks fail, the danger is real and battles do get your pulse racing. As a high level character Arkangel is a tough bitch but she is not invincible. In fact, the power level accumulation feels a bit like playing Praedor. You can get tougher, *much* tougher but the element of danger is always present if you go into battle. Battles matter. I know this is an unpopular view but I think that the game would become boring without the autolevelling feature and I can only tip my hat at the designers for getting the bloody thing *right*. It couldn't have been easy, especially since the previous iteration in Oblivion was such a glorious failure. I feel like this is a 95/100 game and it misses the top score only because S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and the 100 Rad Bar have shown me the true meaning of "atmosphere" in videogames. Even so, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. as a whole would not score this well. It is a great game but Fallout 3 is better. My only real complaint is political correctness. Old Fallouts did much better in the moral controversy and black humour departments.
So there. Bethesda, you suck! But your game doesn't and I would still give you money for the downloadable add-ons if you would only let me!
In other good news, I agreed to write a new book today. The publishing contract should already be somewhere on the snailmail trail. I was already writing the "Stalker novel" when an old acquintance from the publishing world contacted me. He had liked Elämäpeli and wanted to extrapolate on some of the elements mentioned there. So, it is another semi-biographical fact book, although Elämäpeli was already a stretch of the definition. Anway, we exchanged a few emails about it and reached a tentative agreement on its scope and focus (and that I will be writing a much more positive book than he had originally suggested). I'll tell you more about when I have signed the papers and it is a done deal. But as a rule, I have nothing against someone paying me for things I might otherwise blog about. I just wish my fiction was this eagerly sought after.
Finally, the action/action-reaction system I developed for the Card Rules has begun to fascinate me. I have long searched for a good, mass-marketable way to handle firefights and this, done with dice, could be the answer. I have to "dice it" and then try it out in one of my mothballed, shooter-style settings.
Oh yes, I almost forgot. I have created a separate page with direct links to the RPG material published on this blog. The list is incomplete but at least all the latest stuff is all there. Check it out!
These days the PC crowd can count themselves lucky if a major AAA-game release has PC on its list of release platforms. PCs are clunky, have a million hardware configurations and their owners are whiny nerds who only buy 1/6 or 1/8 of the total copies sold. Many of my colleagues have switched their gaming habits to consoles, assuming their preferred genres work there at all. It is so easy: you pop the disc in and off you go! Despite breakdowns, Xbox360 is the pet of the AAA game industry because while there might be more Wiis out there, it is the Xbox360 fanboys who buy the games. New releases on PC are mostly HD-console releases with quick fixes, even if the average desktop PC packs quite a punch compared to any console. Sometimes the devs do not even bother with changing the instructions or tutorials and you find yourself playing a game with a keyboard and a mouse while getting on-screen instructions on the use of an Xbox controller. I think Lost Planet was one of these.
When you do get a game for PC, you pop the disc in, wait for ages when it installs and then learn you either have to download a million patches and/or update a third-party component like your display driver. You would think it would be good for business to keep the patches well-organised and easily available on game website but no! First there might be regional-specific patches, or simply confusion like when you try to install a patch for your digitally downloaded game it tells you to go look for the US retail patch instead. Apparently the "digital download" patch on the developer website was intended for the version sold only on McMurdo Base in Antarctica. This gets especially interesting when the publisher decides to be an asshole and puts all the patches on a commercial download site like Fileplanet. This means legit patches are available only to paying customers of Fileplanet. I've had instances where I have a legit game but all my patches are "pirated", for the lack of a better expression. I have no idea if it counts as an offence but this is one of the rare cases when I would like to give the pirates a medal.
When you are done, it can still be a toss of the coin whether the game runs or not. ArmA (Armed Assault) works only with a specific brand of Nvidia display cards, so I was out of luck with my Radeon 4870 Toxic. It's not how much juice you have but how it is spiced up. I still think the publisher should have put a warning label on the cover or something.
Aaaaand as the cherry on top you usually have to have the disc in the disc drive when playing. So forget about quickly clicking on the icon on your desktop. I hope rummaging through my overflowing game shelf counts as excercise these days. After all this it does not really matter if the game was good or not. The play experience sucked long before the game started and people play games to enjoy themselves. Take that away and you've got nothing. I still like to think console games as dumbed-down digital toys for retards but when my PC has a bad day, it becomes quite obvious who the retard is.
Much of this can be and have been salvaged by digital downloads. You can have all the problems you had with retail copies but things also can be made the smart way. Sometimes they are. Digital downloads tend to appear later than retail copies, so they already have some of the patches and upgrades built in. Their autopatching features tend to work better, perhaps because the system can configure itself already during the installation process and further upgrades benefit from that. There can be some bullshit code you have to enter to bypass DRM but after that the game runs on a single click of a mouse. If only I could have the switching between the desktop and the game on Alt-Tab as a standard feature for all games things could not be any more perfect. Overall, the user experience is much better with digital downloads and the effort to play is low. Of course, some games, like Ukrainian first-person-shooters, still trip over their feet and crash from time to time. But that I can deal with that since the developers where drunk and the game was tailor-made for PCs anyway.
Since digital downloads were about to breathe new life into the dying AAA games market for PCs, Microsoft decided to kill it once and for all. Their poison of choice was Games For Windows LIVE-service. Trust me, after trying to sign up for this one even I felt the urge to become Amish.
I wanted to make sure that once I finished Fallout 3, I could then go on to the DLC (downloaded content), such like Mothership Zeta and stuff. It was supposed to be very easy: I already had the game as a digital purchase from Gamersgate (with the source files backed up, of course). Buying and downloading a few slightly larger "patches" while surfing the web would be a breeze. However, Windows wanted me to create a Windows Live ID for the service. Fair enough, I am registered customer of Gamersgate and Steam, why should a Microsoft store be any different? It asked me surprisingly little information but this did not ring any bells at the time.
Once I had the user ID, I found myself diverted to Xbox.com whenever I wanted to do something. It appears that the entire Games For Windows LIVE is a small boil on the side of the Xbox Live warthog. I had hard time making sure that I was really going to buy a Windows game. Also the user interface was so slow and counterintuitive that my nightmares will be in the colour of Xbox green from now on. Anyways, I learned that Point Anchorage costs 800 Microsoft points, which you can obviously buy for real money. I clicked the "Add points" and the service asked for the billing information of my credit card. Then, I spotted a problem. The service had prefilled my country of origin as "United Kingdom" and now wanted to know from which part of that brave island nation I hailed from. Entering the billing information of course failed because Finnish and UK zip codes do not match. So, now I have a Live ID account but I can't buy anything from GFWL ever because the billing information is wrong by the fucking default. It could not be edited or changed anywhere in the service, including the account information configuration page.
For the record, I am not from Great Britain, I have never lived in Great Britain and the machine I did the registration from is not in Great Britain. The only potential way to resolve this would be staying up late in the middle of the week to catch the US customer service for Microsoft Games. A transcontinental long-distance call in the middle of my night. Even if it had worked, I would still have been pissed at the slow and confusing service that keeps throwing me from one website to another and does not take me seriously when I want to skip their survey on "how awesome your Xbox360 is". I wish there were a reality show where people were throwing their Xboxes into jet turbines. Games For Windows LIVE might be a joke but the real punchline is that they are the exclusive distributor for Fallout 3 DLC. The main game is available from lots of online stores but the DLC is not. If GFWL isn't your friend and you really don't want to buy another disc when the alternative is clearly there, you are, in poetic terms, fucked.
The digital download sales will not take off because the big industry won't let them. I guess it would be a threat to Xbox360 if people were actually enjoy playing games on a PC. You kno that I work in the games industry. I am very much against pirating games. Right now I am still playing the main game in FO3 and will be for quite some time. But regrettably, when it is all over and done with and the DLC still has not found its way into some functional webstore, I will be sorely tempted (and torn by guilt) to download a pirated copy and hope I can some day pay for them. Then I said it on Bethesda's Fallout 3 forum and they suspended my account for 15 years.