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20-Nov-2013: Crash!

Sigh. Bad news make much better blog entries than good news. But practically all news about my work are covered by an NDA, so it's a no go. I've written a rant about it twice and then deleted it and that's all you are going to get. Psh. This is just one those things I have to carry with me. A load that will get lighter over time (quite a bit after the first good night's sleep, in fact) but never goes away entirely. Stuff like this is one of the things that makes me feel old. Then again, it's also a reminder and a learning experience. And I can catch up on some other projects now.

To divert myself from my frustrations, I've been toying with a new-slash-old setting using a new angle. I have been watching reality shows about gold mining recently (well, quite a while now, actually). I love the concept of going out there, pushing against the boundaries of our civilization and bringing back treasure, usually after great hardship. Gold prospecting includes many of the elements I also embrace in my roleplaying games: the frontiers between civilization and anarchy, small teams of hardy individuals taking their fates into their own hands and gambling with their lives (deaths are infrequent in modern gold mining but for most of these people becoming a prospector was a Hail Mary investment with their last dime). Then there is the passion for gold, the so-called gold fever that has driven people mad ever since ancient Egyptians figured out that gold actually has a value even if you can't eat it.

Very recently, I watched Gold Fever, a wonderful, shamelessly dramatized documentary about the California Gold Rush of 1848-1850. It kicked my interest in the subject into overdrive and playing Borderlands 2 certainly didn't help. I wanted the same kind of melodrama with bright colors, a Wild West -soundtrack and anime-sized guns. Of course, me being me, I also wanted mutated monsters, post-holocaust aesthetics and cyberware visible from miles away. I already had some prime real estate in my back pocket waiting to be used: namely my old visions of a postholo-cyber-spaceopera Mars. One of the many derivations of the venerable INFRA concept.

So, the year is 2158. The terraforming of Mars was well underway, until the remains of an alien civilization were discovered in Valles Marineris. Artefacts of alien technology promise to revolutionize science and industry, while layers of Martian fossils are opening up entire new avenues of medical and biotech research. Abandoning the drudgery of corporate-driven terraforming colonies on the northern polar plateau, more than a million pioneers have ventured south in search of treasure. A year later, even more explorers began trickling in from Earth. The terraforming plan is in shambles and the great canyon is a lawless frontier of desperate people in search of elusive treasures.

Back on Earth, the Cartel is pressuring the Martian Corporations to impose law and order on Valles Marineris but these have neither the resources nor mutual trust to tame the massive canyon. In addition, the some in the corporations harbor a terrible secret: They have long known the ruins were there but all earlier attempts to colonise the canyon have failed. Terraforming goes haywire down there, technology breaks down, flesh mutates and minds shatter. A strange and terrible power lurks in the depths of Valles Marineris and those in the know fear it has only been waiting for fresh meat.

Valles Marineris is over 4000 kilometres long, sometimes hundreds of kilometres wide and in places over 9 kilometres deep. It is also on the same rough altitude as the northern polar plateau with a post-terraforming barometric pressure of 400-600 mbars. The atmosphere is breathable to bio-adapted colonists but newcomers from Earth may find it hostile. The canyon cuts deep into the equatorial highlands and is surrounded on all sides by arid wastelands of dust tornadoes, brain-cooking radiation and blood-boiling atmospherics lows. The mountain ranges on those highlands reach effectively into space.

Valles Marineris also cuts down into the planet's crust, exposing layers of minerals and gemstones. While abandoned and quarantined after the loss of early colonies, some clandestine prospecting has always gone on. It was these prospectors and smugglers who rediscovered both the alien ruins and the dead colonies now repopulated by the Martian gold rush. In addition to the xenominers, the canyon now holds bandits and traders, pilgrims and bounty hunters, rebels and isolationists. Martian Corporations may have been unable to tame the canyon but still run networks of field agents. By now, the Earth-based Corporations allied to the Cartel can't be far behind.

In the colonist lingo, to leave your assigned post and role in the terraforming program and go south is to "go roving". With one in ten colonists gone roving, often in breach of their citizenship contracts which means the only way back is via a penal colony or being rich enough to bend the system, everybody knows someone who has "gone roving". Many strike out but some strike it rich, either returning north or using their wealth to build their own futures down south. The Cartel is right to be worried, for social history projections indicate these "rovers" will be the start of Martian Independence.

Crimson Rovers is a roleplaying game of the Martian gold rush and the adventurers who abandoned everything in search of alien treasure. Or better yet, the secrets behind them. If this thing gets off the ground, it will probably be about the size of Mobsters and distributed the same way. The rules would be shamelessly action-focused and I thought I might try my hand both at a simple dice pool mechanic and a vehicle combat system. I would really like to use this setting (and possibly the system) in a video game but RPG Maker is a poor platform for vehicle physics. Anyways, tinkering with this will be my stress toy for weeks to come. The fall is almost over anyway.

04-Nov-2013: Snow In My Beard

There was a time when I was worried about finding grey strands in my goatee. That battle has since then been well and truly lost. Now in Bali, where the tropical Sun roasted my face, I noticed that not only did I have a salt-and-pepper beard but some strands in the topmost layer had turned white as snow. They'll drop off but it was a startling sight. A sign of things to come, really.

Yes, it is my birthday.

I am 40 years old now and thus officially middle-aged, as many well-wishers like to remind me. According to focus group studies, this is the time when a person stops dreaming about the things he will accomplish in the future and instead takes stock on things accomplished thus far and if possible, solidifes his gain. This perception is the root cause of workplace ageism as such people are considered to have lost their ambition and thus the drive to excel and improve. Entrepreneurs, or freelancers in general, do not have this option. Or they do but unless their field is really something really retro it tends to be a kiss of death. It is a good thing in many ways but of course, it also means getting involved in new games industry trends that you might not personally like. Oh well, professional game designers are not entitled to personal preferences about the games they are contracted to make. Fortunately, I've also had time to play something on my own time.

I have been playing Borderlands 2 by Gearbox. Yes, the company that totally phoned in Aliens: Colonial Marines and has been doing PR management by pointing fingers at its subcontractors ever since. The Borderlands franchise is their cash cow and what they are now famous for. Borderlands are Diabloesque first-person shooters set in the world of Pandora where you go about hunting alien treasure; or guns. Mostly guns. They have put all the muscle of Diablo 2's loot system into generating new guns and to a lesser extent shield modules and stuff like that. The world is a tapestry of smallish zones with rapidly respawning enemies... oh hell, play Diablo 2 and you get the picture. No, not the piece of shit Blizzard is peddling now but the previous one. As such, I have nothing against FPS-Diablos with guns. Even Hellgate: London, which is based on the same concept, was quite enjoyable at times.

That said, I wasn't a big fan of the original Borderlands. It smacked of a production failure: that the team had been making a largish scifi RPG and when they ran out of time and budget, they turned it into a slapdash loot shooter with cell-shaded cartoony graphics so no one would notice how shitty their textures actually were. The story was rubbish, the gameplay was repetitive to the point of being suicide-inducing and while the co-operative multiplayer is generally considered to be fun, I could not get over how they had first built a large and interesting setting and then butchered it to suit their new simplified gameplay model. And even then the gunplay wasn't that fun because of leveling-induced balancing issues and crappy loot drops. But really, their world was a corpse and the worst of all was that you could tell that it had been a living and breathing thing at some point during the production. For a narrative-lover like myself it was a dealbreaker.

Unlike it's predecessor, Borderlands 2 is not a salvage job on a sinking project, nor is it putting lipstick on a pig. This time the devs knew what their optimum gameplay was like and planned accordingly. I still think turning Pandora into a series of fighting arenas with constantly respawning baddies is waste of a setting but the arenas actually work. Rather than being an open world, the setting feels like a labyrinth built from modular widepipe levels or combat arena spaces. You enter one space and it throws its baddies at you. Clear them out or (rarely) avoid them and you can move into the next space and so on, until you finally get where you wanted to go, usually a boss. The biggest levels have a central hub space where you can fool around it with vehicles. From here, openings lead into mission areas or other zones of the game world. Unlike the first game, the BL2 map makes no attempt at realism and is actually better for it. Really, being aware of its own limitations is perhaps the defining feature of this game.

Storyline is a case in point. The plot of the original game was piss-poor. The BL2 story is not much of an improvement but it knows its shortcomings and even mocks itself for it. Both Corny and Cliché knobs have been turned all the way up to eleven, making what usually would be poor writing into a parody of the more serious shooters. Also, the story does a much better job at leading the player along this time, so I was never really stuck with nothing to do but also never had the sidequest glut that many critics have been complaining about. Also, all the characters are introduced in a graphic novel fashion and provoke at least an amused snort. You'll either love or hate the cell-shaded hand-drawn style but animations are much improved. Both old Quake-style gibs and the anguished death struggle of someone shot in the face with a corrosive bullet from a sniper rifle are very cathartic to watch. And that is basically the whole content. The closest thing to a puzzle in this game is finding a route to new box of hopefully better guns. There is really nothing else.

All in all, I was positively surprised by Borderlands 2. It proves wrong the old adage that you can't polish a turd. This is a beautiful and shiny turd, much improved over the original while retaining the original smell and moist consistency. I have always been drawn to the post-holo/scifi/wild-west feel of Borderlands (if I weren't, the shittiness of Borderlands 1 wouldn't have bothered me). Borderlands 2 still falls far short of the promised land but it is a genuinely fun game to play and probably even more so as a co-op multiplayer. Borderlands 1 made me hate it towards the end. I am only at level 21 in BL2 but so far I like what I've seen and have been able to push through the grind. Yes, grind. But when the grind is about starting fights in a bar with an acid bazooka, I'll live with it.

Final verdict: +1

01-Nov-2013: In The Sun's Shadow

I am finally back from Bali (a small island that is part of Indonesia and a cluster of Hinduism in the world's most populous Muslim state). My spouse went there for the IGF conferenc and I tagged along, taking it easy. After the conference we spent a week just vacationing there. We started out in Nusa Dua. It was a hideously sterile and artificial-looking enclave for wealthy tourists, although it did have the best beaches as well. Then we decided to be adventurous and shit. We went to Ubud, with the original intention of staying there for the rest of our stay. However, after finding out that we are neither Indiana Joneses nor SAS operatives (and me coming very close to punching the street vendors of Ubud market in the face), we concluded our stay in Ubud with an epic temple tour in the middle of a local religious festival and then fled back to the coast and into the venerable tourist beach city of Sanur. That turned out to be a touristy but still a very lively city compared to the sterile Nusa Dua and a huge improvement over the shithole known as Ubud. So, Sanur I can recommend, at least if you are into a mixture of Canary Islands and feeling like a Vietnam War correspondent. Really, Sanur is *old* as tourist sites go and this does give it a certain "old spy movie" -charm.

Some people have said they get a deja vu from the Renaissance cities of Italy after playing Assassin's Creed II. I got a deja vu from the Java Sea for having played Silent Hunter IV. The straight between Bali and Java was my usual route into and away from the patrol areas within the East Indies. For some reason the Japs always left it unguarded, except for an occasional air patrol.

All in all, Bali was the furthest away from home I've ever been. 11000 kilometres away and just across the equator on the southern hemisphere. It was stifling hot and the humidity made the heat really oppressive. The warm air closed around you like a fist, squeezing you until you broke. For an out-of-shape northerner like myself doing anything at all became a major chore. In Nusa Dua, I managed long walks but towards the end of our stay both sunburn and increasing fatigue brought me down. But I swam in the Java Sea! Which was oppressively warm, incredibly salty and uncomfortably shallow. The island is surrounded by reefs which also act as breakers but the lagoons are very, very shallow. And if the heat and humidity won't kill you, sunburn while wading through water will.

Ubud, being an utter shithole, was a good inspiration for my Stalker novel. In Sanur, I began dreaming of Aztla once more: the fourth continent of the Known World in Miekkamies, lying far away across the Green Sea from Arleon. It is a land of tropical seas, deep jungles, fire-belching mountains and the ruins of ancient civilization that had fallen long before the Delorian explorers reached it during the Third Dynasty. But during the Age of Darkfire, which broke the Delorian Empire in Arleon, the seven God-Kings of Atzla awakened in their tombs. Now living dead with godlike powers, the God-Kings of Atzla drink the blood and souls of the living, breed monsters with men and summon ancient horrors from the depths of their accursed pyramids. As darkness spreads over the Land of the Sun, the remnants of the former Imperial Colonies, now a mixture of free cities, pirate holds and colonies sworn to the many Successor Kingdoms of Arleon, grow weaker. But the struggle for the fate of Atzla is only getting started, as tales great treasure and ancient magic have spread far beyond its pearly shores...

13-Oct-2013: New Adventure!

The year 2013 is shaping out to be the biggest yet for the Finnish Games Industry, even if the new wealth is somewhat more narrowly concentrated than I would like. 2013 is definitely shaping out to be the best year yet by far for Burger Games. Well, it is there already. The remainder of the year is just icing on the cake. Of course, the BG figures will be secret to all but the tax officials. The industry figures for 2013 were leaked to me in an IPR University seminar. I guess they are not exactly secret but I don't know if I should blurt them out before the official Neogames press release. This is the kind of stuff that the media loves to report and the industry bigwigs love to celebrate, so maybe I should leave it to our collective 15 minutes of basking in the spotlight once the next Neogames report gets out. Because with these figures and growth rates we are sure as hell going to get that spotlight. Along with the derisive writings in the commentary sections by morons who can't grasp the post-industrial world.

"Get a haircut and get a real job!"

Joni Virolainen, a long-time Praedor fan who often comments my blog by email suggested turning the Praedor system value comparisons around for FLOW-style usage. The player would roll dice according to difficulty levels (5D easiest, 1D hardest) and add his ability score, if any, into the result. This would then be compared to a fixed success threshold that must be exceeded (unless the player rolls "1" on all dice which is an automatic failure). If using a single success threshold, it would probably be 20 (the average of 3D + ability score 10, rounded to a nearest nice-looking value). I would probably go for success steps, though, 10/15/20/25... and so on. The FLOW system already deals with "the effects of failure" and how any action by the character is likely to change the circumstances in some fashion. The bigger the result, the bigger the change. Think Rolemaster. And there are bonus dice from ideas and roleplaying. Yeah, this is definitely a possibility. It is not "intuitively neat" when I turn it around in my head but could probably be made to work. It also reminds me of the D6 system for West End Games' Star Wars, btw. Or how combat rolls were made in the venerable High Colonies.

Not bad, Joni. Not bad at all :)

I am leaving for tropics soon. After struggling with a resurgence of flu, a throat inflammation and the parts of my work contracts that I just can't skip on account of being sick, kicking back in the tropics might be just what the doctor ordered. Of course, I have to bring a laptop with me so I can write a couple of more chapters of the Stalker novel. There is just one problem: I just got an idea for a Miekkamies/FLOW roleplaying campaign. Or a long adventure, whatever you want to call it. It is a swashbuckling-conspiratorial adaptation of the Dreaming Plague adventure I once offered for Lamentations of Flame Princess scenario kickstarter. That came to nothing but maybe it is better this way. Miekkamies is a roleplaying game of blue steel, while lace, red velvet and black magic. Its version of the Dreaming Plague will a menage-a-trois between Three Musketeers, Brotherhood of the Wolf and Hammer Film's Dracula.

Of course, that would means I'd have to write out both the adventure basics and the Miekkamies FLOW-rules. And that would mean diverting time and effort away from the Stalker novel. Which, in completely independent news, took quite a leap forward during the last two weeks.


Having seen just pictures and sample jars, Moncke had always thought of mutations as something akin to debilitating injuries. Yet the creature facing him was functional and complete, perfectly adapted to its inhuman physique. It was beautiful, in some alien and perverse sense of the word...


A heartbeat later all sound died. The corridor went beyond silent. Normally, the human ear keeps hearing things even in complete silence. It picks up whatever it finds, like the internal movements of the body, the gushing of blood, the beating of the heart, the wheezing of the lungs and the subtle growls of the bowels. Any vibration transmitted to the ear bones can be perceived as sound. But now there was nothing...


Despite the sizable grey area, he had always considered working for the Bureau a law enforcement job. It had its drawbacks but it also meant having the Man, the collective authority of the System, to back you up. Sure, shit happened even to the best of them but as a rule, hardened criminals could be made to fear, if not respect the law.


Fairness and justice were strictly man-made concepts. They did not exist naturally or even in the human society unless constantly striven for, so he considered them a waste of time and effort. But for some reason this particular death, perhaps soon to be added to his kill list, bothered him. He lit up a cigarillo and used the light to observe the blood spatter where the woman had fallen against the wall. It was his personal addition to the graffiti outside.


Yeah, it's getting there.

09-Oct-2013: Praedor Game Design

Game design musings of a pen-and-paper roleplaying game author. If that's not your thing, you can stop reading right now.

Okay, here we go. EBB gameplay, Praedor mechanics. That game system does not have a cool brand name, unfortunately. The main advantage of the Praedor core mechanic over my others is greater scaling and that Old Skool players just love to roll those dice. What I wanted to do was to get rid of the calculations and micromanagement systems that follow, hopefully using the abstractions I’ve made when running the Bloodguard Campaign as a guide.

Where the Praedor core rules fail is that the task resolution system is very much tied to the abilities. In FLOW or EBB you can try to do almost anything and having an ability simply confers you a massive bonus, without which the higher difficulty levels are unattainable. By contrast, Praedor core rules are married to the ability list and if you don't have a suitable ability, you are basically screwed. An alternate system has to be devised around the attribute values, which then hamstrings their use as a Luck Point reservoir... bloody hell, do I need three numeric value sets to make this work?

How the Praedor system works is that if you don't have the right skill, you can still attempt a task with it against its starting value with one additional die. The gamemaster may also rule that lore tasks or those deemed to use true specialist skills are out of reach, such as alchemy for non-alchemists. It is a really harsh system, much more so than FLOW/EBB in general. Once you have a skill in Praedor, the skill value consists of half the attribute value (or 6 for lore skills) and the points the player has invested into it. The resulting total value then determines your ability in the said skill. The scale is from 1 to 20+, although new characters are capped to 15 and usually have all their skills at a value above 7. Considering the rest of the world, it is quite common for a village blacksmith to have his blacksmith ability at 10, only to increase to 12 towards the end of his life. Those who do not constantly push against their boundaries very rarely exceed 12 in any ability. This is how the values correspond to summarized levels of ability.

Beginner, Dilettante ...6
Apprentice, Student 7...9
Professional, Fully Trained 10...12
Veteran of little fame 13...15
Expert of some fame 16...18
Master of great fame 19+

Now, one option would be to use attribute values from 1...10 as a baseline value for task rolls. The ability score, probably also on a scale of 1-10 would be added to it to create the total ability value for the task. However, this puts uncharacteristic emphasis on attribute values. I preferred to have the skill values develop more independently from the attributes, so that a low attribute value would be a hindrance but never a blocker to high skill levels. Damn, there is really is no natural marriage to EBB and Praedor-systems, is there? Either the gameplay will be radically different from the EBB and the issue of what is or isn't covered by a loosely-defined ability becomes absolutely paramount, or I create a category of base values to which ability scores are then added before task rolls.

Hmm. The default base value would obviously be 6, or there could be nation-specific differences to them. Abilities, when chosen during character creation, would also add +1 to the most relevant base. So a character with three mostly physical abilities would have a physical task base value of 9. But what if the player puts all his abilities into physical things... base value 16 + whatever the ability scores will be? The crashing sound you just heard was the rules algorithm breaking apart because we ventured too far outside the mathscape of Praedor.

Okay, 0.5 add per ability, rounding up. It's ugly but it is already done in FLOW, so it won't look so bad if the determination process is reversed: first determine the attribute bonuses, then add the nation-based default to that figure. Now that gives the player just 5 points to move around between the base values. Suddenly, the national defaults become by far the most determining factor in anyone's attributes, even if mathematically the effect on success probabilities is actually very close to that in Vanilla Praedor. It would work mechanically but players would not find it cool. So it is not a marketable solution.

Hmm, option C. Make Praedor attributes into abilities that every character has for basic human functions. Treat other abilities as true specializations in scope and concepts, for activities falling outside the sphere of normal/peasant human activity. There is no relation between them and the attribute values. For some reason, I have a strong inclination to impose weapon specializations into this system. It does fit the genre, I give you that. It is also a complexity-adding clusterfuck. Especially Praedor (and Miekkamies) are so heavily combat-oriented that this approach just feels wrong.

Hmm, looks like the ugly truth is that both Praedor and Miekkamies are best served either by an all-out FLOW or using a much more traditional rule system like the original Praedor. It was first used to play a hypothetical new edition of Miekkamies, btw.

21-Sep-2013: The Miekkamies Dilemma

I hope you have enjoyed reading the EBB rules for Praedor as much as I liked writing them. I like them too but one thing vexes me: the popularity of the original Praedor rules. The 4chan discussion about Stalker RPG being hipster shit is true to the extent that being as old as I am, I can no longer get a hard-on over long lists and damage tables. However, in Finland, Praedor remains by far my most popular RPG and it also has the most active and long-lasting fans. Even the one roleplaying campaign I've been running for most of this year does not use FLOW or EBB: it is vanilla Praedor, or vanilla to the extent my laissez-fair approach to the rules allows. The hardcore Old Skool crowd still outnumbers the hipster shit crowd and while Miekkamies EBB would be very cool, what my players are actually asking for is something akin to Praedor.

Since Praedor RPG is out only in Finnish, here is a quick recap of the rule system. The player has a more traditional Stats/Skills division with values ranging from none to 20+, although it is very rare for anyone to actually surpass 20. To succeed in a challenge, you must roll a number of 6-sided dice set by the difficulty level and score equal or under the stat/skill value. Extraneous circumstances can add or subtract a die or two. If you ever roll two "6"s, you fail by default. If you ever roll three or more "6"s, you fumbled. This effectively caps the odds at about 95%, regardless of skill, as long as you are rolling at least 2D (Routine difficulty). Most challenge rolls are done with 2D, 3D or 4D, peaking at 7, 11 and 14, respectively.

What are not capped are the success levels. Clearing the threshold is a level 1 success. Clearing the threshold by a margin of 5 or more is a level 2 success and clearing the threshold by a margin of 10 or more is a level 3 success. Also, if all dice scored "1", you have a level 3 success regardless of all other factors. So even if the overall odds are capped at 95%, skilled characters will have an edge in the levels of success. In combat, the levels of offensive and defensive rolls are compared to each other and outcomes vary from all-out misses to shields breaking and dreadful injuries being caused.

Praedor's damage system is one of its most celebrated features. A default level 1 hit inflicts 1D + weapon damage - hit location's armor rating in damage. Level 2 inflicts 2D, level 3 inflicts 3D. All dice are explosive; i.e. dice scoring "6" are rolled again and there is no theoretical damage cap from any attack. I think the biggest damage score I've seen rolled is somewhere past 50. Any damage getting past armor is subtracted from the target's Blood Points, eventually wearing him down and giving him penalty dice for physical actions. If the damage also exceeded his Deep Wound threshold, each hit location has a table on the effects of injuries depending on how much the DWT was exceeded. The results change in steps of 2 points, so while on the surface the sword damage value of 7 and axe damage value of 8 appear close to each other, the axe has a 50% chance of upping the Deep Wound step, making it clearly the deadlier weapon (which is compensated by its low speed so swords get their attacks in first).

Head hits are always severe, legs take one more DW level to incapacitate than arms, chest can take a lot of punishment but if the ribcage of pierced the results are usually fatal, while someone with a gut wound can linger on for quite a bit longer but will still die without expert care or magic. Creatures with no organic metabolism have no blood points but the deep wound effects apply: you can't bleed a skeleton to death but you can break it apart. Then there are wound-specific penalty dice, bleeding, stuns and so on. Players love it but I can't bother with all that micromanagement anymore. Part of the thinking behind FLOW was codify the house-rule, skipping and streamlining processes I often applied when gamemastering Praedor.

Is there are a golden medium between the vanilla Praedor rules and the hipster shit of EBB/FLOW? Should it even be striven for, or will it just water down the best parts of both, I wonder...

19-Sep-2013: Immersive

For a game that puts most of its money on immersion, Skyrim does so many things wrong it is absurd. The biggest problem are probably the factions: in the name of mass appeal, there is no exclusivity in joining different factions, even if they are politically and ideologically at odds. Somebody in the dev team, or perhaps marketing, must have thought this a good idea but it has two adverse consequences regarding immersion: A) joining a faction does not really represent any kind of choice and B) not being able to turn down or delete stuff from the quest journal flattens the dynamics of the game world. Vanilla Skyrim has the added idiocy of you becoming the leader of any faction you've joined once the faction storyline is complete. In Dark Brotherhood storyline this is not a problem for immersion (DB being the best storyline in the game altogether) but for Companions and the Mages' College in Winterhold it is ludicrous, especially since the gameplay does not support the leadership position in any way.

There are mods to fix this: Thieves' Guild Requirements mod makes it so that you don't even get invited to join them unless your skills and actions already prove you live a thieving lifestyle. Archmage Tolfdir gives you the opportunity to make Tolfdir the Archmage of the College instead of yourself; a much better choice in every regard, and The Companion's Guild Mod basically brings the Companions faction to life, although being still a Newblood at level 50 is slightly embarrassing (yep, they haven't even made me a full member yet). I should probably add the mod that makes all Thieves' Guild members killable, so that Vianka can wipe those degenerates out. But much of this hassle could have been avoided if you could just turn down quests from the quest journal. Now that I know the game like the back of my hand, I can make informed decisions on what questlines to follow and roleplay my character through these decisions. But I would prefer a more sensible system to begin with, so that faction affiliations would be relevant. Even if it means adding "a backdoor" into almost every faction to ensure the precious mass appeal.

By the way, of the basic quest mods, Helgen Reborn has proven to be an excellent and immersive adventure that really helps you feel like you are making a different in the game world. There are other great quest mods but none of them have such depth and empowerment.

But, as I suspected, the biggest game changer is Frostfall. Even if you are not running any other basic needs mod, it essentially forces you travel by day, rest by night and behave sensibly in the wilderness. Having it measure your relative wetness from rain, river crossings, or god forbid, swimming in the icy waters of Sea of Ghosts, is a stroke of genius and makes the world geography relevant all of a sudden. Want to get across a river? Find shallows, jump on rocks, or seek a narrow point you can leap over with Whirlwind Sprint. Want to explore a sunken ship off the coast? Find the closest spot to it, set up your tent and build a fire, then make your dive and get back quickly to warm up and dry off, or the Sea of Ghosts will add you to its dead.

I get the feeling that Skyrim has actually had hypothermia rules at some point during development: Frostfall forces you to make good use of the ice floes and jump across patches of open water and curiously the floes seemed to have been designed with this in mind. But in the vanilla game, falling into water did not matter since you could swim as fast as you walked and could explore the whole of Sea of Ghosts just by swimming around. With Frostfall, sea is a killer. And even before you get to it, furious snowstorms can keep you holed up in Dawnstar or Winterhold (damn that place is remote!) for days while waiting for a break in the weather (break in the sense that Weathersense tells you it is only "bone-freezing cold" rather than "frigid and deadly"). The same applies, to a lesser extent, to the mountains and highlands. Quite a few Bandits and Forsworn have died by my sword just because they happened to be guarding a campfire on a rainy night. If hypothermia was really part of the original design (and given the importance of cold as a theme in Skyrim I would not be surprised) and was subsequently removed in the interests of mass appeal, I say it was a mistake.

At level 50 and wearing double-enchanted everything, I have little to fear from sharp steel, rending claws or powerful magics. But I still dread the cold. Also, Immersive Patrols helps the balancing a little bit. Still, it could be better.

In other news, my Praedor roleplaying campaign is doing really, really, well, thank you very much for asking. We have not set an exact schedule but even with case-by-case iteration it is largely biweekly and sometimes a weekly thing. I am really happy about this because Verivartio has proven to be one of my all-time greats as roleplaying campaigns go and some of the things that occurred in the last session will probably spawn memes among my friends that will outlive in the campaign itself. Many have lamented to me that maintaining an active roleplaying hobby is impossible at this age. I am really glad that both myself and my players, two of whom have children, seem to be the exception to the rule.

For some reason, I have also received multiple requests to run roleplaying games to perfect strangers in the Alter Ego Society and elsewhere. I don't have the spare time for another campaign but one-offs are not entirely out of the question, especially later this Fall. Still, where the hell did all these people come from and where that they been for the past decade? I haven't been active in Alter Ego for 13 years and have already passed on the torch of recruiting new players into the hobby. The Tomb of Burger in the Old Skool Crypt has been sealed shut with stones, traps and spells (even if a small and exclusive secret society is rumored to convene there from time to time). Why are you banging on the doors and disturbing the ancient evil that lies within?

P'h'nglui mgwlw'nafh Burger Vantaa wgah'nagl fhtagn.

15-Sep-2013: Visions of The Industry

Notice the new cover picture by Miha Rinne.

In my biggest on-going contract, I was made the lead designer of a game project despite having originally agreed to be just a half-time level designer on a freelance basis. I was - and still am - happy to help them out, make no mistake about that. However, being the lead designer means you get to tell other people what to do (of course, in sub-contracting projects there are also plenty of people who tell you what to do as well). This runs the risk that some people might not like what I am asking them to do. And to make matters worse, a freelancer is an outsider, not really part of the group dynamics of a well-established studio and its dev teams. My usual strategy for dealing with this has been to be friendly, polite and understanding with everybody but keeping a distance so that I am not seeing intruding on established social dynamics. It would be pointless anyway because all projects eventually end and then I'll fade away like morning mist.

This approach has worked fine for concept design, narrative design and any other kind of assistive design gigs. But when you are the lead designer and wield authority over the production... not so much. Right now there is some friction and it is wearing me out. I'd much rather be just plain liked. And if that is not an option, all I can really hope for is that what does not kill me makes me stronger. Game industry, I love you, babe, but you don't love anyone back. I am okay with that but sometimes, just sometimes, it is a strain on our relationship.

Speaking of relationships with the game industry, Miha Rinne finally got his Matkailua Pelialalla comic books finished, printed and mailed. The website still contains roughly one third of the story but it only takes you to the year 2000 or so. The full story, told in the comic book, goes all the way up to present day. I was a big fan of the webcomic and I am an even bigger fan of the printed comic, although I only got into this business in 2004 and thus more than half of the book is historical documentation as far as I am concerned. Miha has been admonished for his intentionally sloppy underground art style in this comic but I think it is a perfect fit and leaves enough space for the reader. And if Kari Suomalainen thought that kind of thing was an important and a good thing in cartooning, who are you to argue?

Matkailua Pelialalla is, frankly, ingenious. The book has two layers: open it up on almost any page and it has a joke on it, sometimes a morbid joke of very dark and controversial humor but a joke nonetheless. But if you read it all the way through, it becomes a dark and in my opinion a quite epic tale of lost innocence and shattered dreams. The author warned me that the later stages of his book might change my view of the whole comic and he was right. The emotional impact was like a sledgehammer between my eyes, unpleasant and riveting at the same time. Matkailua Pelialla ceased to be just a funnie and became a work of art. A really bloody excellent work of art. Believe it or not, it took me over a week to rewire my head so that I could write all this.

I don't expect other people will experience anything like the emotional shock I did but holy fuck! While I never lost my love for the industry, I've been to that "showing". Oh yes, I've been there, crying my eyes out. Frankly, I haven't had any "big dreams" regarding the games industry since I was laid off from Recoil Games in 2008. I did not go into freelancing for another three years but maybe I should have. I probably would have liked it already back then.

13-Sep-2013: HAX Designs: Layer-1

I am working on four different videogame projects right now. Three of them pay me money and expect me to shut up about them. The fourth one costs me money and I am the judge of what I can or can't say about it. Wirepunk has pretty much abandoned the HAX website and given these (lack of) schedules, I don't see us going back to it anytime soon. But, I can blog about our progress here.

Basically, what we are working on now is the Grid, the infrastructure of a virtual world. They consist of nodes the player takes over for resources and once used, are consumed, so the resources in each network are finite. This is the layer-1 of HAX gameplay and if it fails, everything fails with it, so we are going for a playable prototype ASAP using coloured balls in unity. I have probably explained this before but you can think of it as an inverted match-3 gameplay on a hex-map. Instead moving the colours to create combos, you are moving yourself from one hex to another and can claim other nodes by swiping out from your avatar. If you swipe over a mixed set of nodes, you get less benefits but there are secret codes, activated by daily changing sequences of different nodes. If you arrive into a node that has adjacent nodes of the same type, the adjacent nodes are highlighted and if you swipe them as a straight combo, the benefits increase with every additional node (1 + 2 + 3 + 4... so the total base benefit of a four-node straight combo would be 10).

As the nodes are consumed, they are replaced with grey base nodes and eventually the network will shrink to colourful islands of unclaimed resources in an ocean of deserted grey. Eventually the player is forced to abandoned his old networks and seek out new, more challenging hunting grounds. At the top of the pyramid is the Xanadu Station network, the hub of an AI-transhumanist interplanetary society that keeps Earth alive. Here the nodes will respawn, so Xanadu Network is always up for grabs. And if we ever get to creating additional content, the player can push past the character limits by setting up his own systems within Xanadu Network, which, of course, can then be attacked by other players.

You know, it is becoming more and more difficult to find good cyberhack scenes from YouTube. Even the ones I used to have are fading away, especially since newer and bigger films are made by the same name (ref. "Avatar").

Claiming nodes gives the player resources from energy restoration to building up botnets to beef up his viral attacks or hacking during the run. Basically, nodes are the sources and Systems are the sinks, along with the default sink of energy expenditure. Every move costs Energy. Originally I called this stat "Trace" but for a diminishing variable that is also depleted by System attacks, Energy is easier for players to grasp and thus needs no in-game explanation. It is also slowly depleted over time, so no idling in the network. At zero Energy, the player crashes, loses macros (subsidiary programs acting as power-ups) and he cannot return to that particular network for one full hour. Lucky for him, networks are arranged in tiers and if a tier is available, so are all the networks in it. Progression through these tiers acts as a reward system and provides storyline opportunities.

When I first became interested in cyberpunk, it sort of merged with my interest in post-holocaust. Back then, I couldn't have cared less for Gibsonian visions. Now that I am 25 years older that is the specific part in cyberpunk that interests me the most and the one post-humanist subculture I want to explore in my fiction.

If finding clusters of nodes and swiping them to beef up yourself isn't fun as a basic activity, there is no point in proceeding to layer-2. But I hope it works. We have procedurally generated test maps for rations of nodes and adjacent combinations. After the first few bugs were ironed out I like what I see but we won't know for sure until movement and node claiming has been introduced. Perhaps with the default Energy consumption to give us a yardstick on how fast the average player is expected to move and how much hassle dealing with the Systems can be allowed to bring. It pains me to think that if we were working on this full-time, we could have done this in days. Now it is going to be weeks, not too many of them but weeks nevertheless. Everything takes an order of magnitude longer when you are a garage developer.

Keeping up with the technical evolution of increasingly autonomous machines is not about robotic arms and monowhips. It is a battle of minds. While the HAX subculture is often involved in criminal activities, it is really about fine-tuning your own mind to unfeasible levels of performance. Jacked in, a HAX Ghost Runner becomes a god, expanding his cognitive abilities, memory and knowledge far beyond the limitations of his grey matter by harnessing the various potentials of the Link. Giving it all up when the run finally ends and the needs of the physical body have to be taken care of must feel like dying a thousand deaths. And that is every time you pull the plug.